Pennies Add Up to Cleanliness

The state's new bottle law rewards thrifty consumers with a penny and sometimes more for recycling soft-drink and beer containers. A penny might not sound like much, but those pennies can add up pretty quickly. Californians drink an estimated 12 billion sodas and beers a year.

Under the new law, distributors pay a penny per bottle or can into a state fund. From that fund the state guarantees a refund to consumers who paid a penny on the containers at the store if they return the empties. We hope that the small incentive pays off with cleaner streets, beaches and parks.

The law requires large supermarkets to identify or set up convenient return stations within a half-mile of the store by Jan. 1 to encourage recycling; 1,000 centers are open, and 2,000 are in the process of opening. Shoppers will have no excuse.

Consumers who bypass the store depots to return containers to recycling centers will get the penny refund plus the scrap value. Aluminum cans are getting up to 2 cents. A resourceful collector can easily fatten the refund.

Fat refunds may prove tempting to bootleggers who try to redeem bottles and cans smuggled from other states. One boxcar full of empty cans, now under investigation by state authorities, could produce a $15,000 refund. Fortunately, lawmakers anticipated the temptation and provided strong penalties in the bottle law.

The law also makes provision in case a penny proves too small an incentive for the average consumer. Unless a goal of 65% is met, the state will increase the refund to 2 cents in 1989 and 3 cents in 1992. The next step ought to be 5 cents on every beverage container. A nickel refund has proved quite effective in 11 states.

California's bottle law only took effect on Oct. 1, so it's too early to tell how well it is working. We hope that recycling the bottles and cans becomes as popular as the beverages inside the containers.

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