By one important measure, California's 30-year-old Beverage Container Recycling program has been a big success. Up until last year, more than 80% of qualifying plastic bottles, glass containers and aluminum cans were returned to recycling centers each year. Billions of bottles and cans that might have otherwise ended up in the state's landfills have found new lives in recycled products.
Yet the program is in trouble because the state shortchanged the centers on their subsidies just as the price of scrap material was dropping. A quarter of the state's recycling centers have closed in the last year and half, many of them in rural areas. And with fewer places to redeem bottles and cans, last year recycling rates dropped to just under 80% for the first time since 2009. Unless lawmakers step in immediately, the rates may well continue to drop, sending untold amounts of potentially recyclable material into the waste stream.
Gov. Brown and legislators want to overhaul the program, and they should. It's inherently unsustainable, victimized by its own success; the revenue the state relies on to support it — the deposits consumers pay on bottled goods — goes down as the recycling rate goes up. To make matters worse, the subsidies needed to ensure adequate recycling centers to serve the entire state are based on a number of factors entirely out of the state's control like labor costs, rent and global demand for plastic or aluminum.
But starving the program while waiting for an overhaul is not the answer. Legislators must include the appropriate amount to fully fund the program in the next fiscal year's budget. Then we can talk about the best way to reform the program for another successful 30 years.