Cracks, Dents in Recycling

California's bottle law guarantees at least a 1-cent refund for each beer or soft-drink container that consumers turn in for recycling. But it won't work if consumers can't turn them in. And that is too often the case in sections of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.

Returning empties should be as easy as buying fulls. State law requires large supermarkets to identify recycling depots within a half-mile of their premises or accept the containers at the store. State auditors are to start looking today for stores that have no recycling bins of their own but are still selling beverages in areas without recycling centers. The penalty is a fine of $100 per day, retroactive to Jan. 1. A quick and thorough crackdown should lead to more recycling.

State authorities can impose fines but cannot remove barriers like zoning restrictions or the requirement of high fees for recycling permits. Local authorities should ease the process so that more centers can open quickly.

No shopper should have to lug around empty cans or bottles looking for a place to turn them in. Consumers can telephone a toll-free number, 1-800-327-9886, to find the closest outlet, but the law will work better if the barriers to new centers are cleared away and stores bend over backward to cooperate. Unless recycling rates hit 65%, the penny refund will double in 1989 and triple in 1992. A nickel refund, standard in 11 states, would provide an even stronger incentive.

Californians drink 12 billion sodas and beers annually. Having gotten into the recycling field in the first place, the Legislature must make certain that the program works smoothly for those who care about conserving energy, removing litter or saving money. A penny isn't a jackpot, but it is no incentive at all if recycling is a hassle.

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