Where a Nickel Pays Off

California’s bottle law is not working. Consumers are returning only 57% of the empty aluminum cans, 33% of the glass bottles and 5% of plastic containers even though that means they lose the redemption value. And the recycling rates are dropping--off by 10% for cans--after an initial surge--and 4% for glass bottles during the second half of last year, according to the state Department of Conservation. The lesson is that a penny for a can or bottle sends too weak a signal.

In states where a nickel refund is the standard and empties can be returned to most stores, nearly 90% of beer and soda containers are returned.

California’s bottle return was enacted in 1987 when bottlers, grocers and environmentalists finally settled on a penny per bottle or can, plus the scrap value of the container. The law also set up a statewide network of recycling centers; empties cannot be returned to the store where purchased unless it has a recycling depot on the premises.

The law guarantees a 2-cent refund as of Jan. 1 if recycling rates do not reach 65%. Why wait? A higher refund is in order now.


A good bill, SB 1221, sponsored by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), would raise the redemption value to a nickel on containers that do not meet the 65% goal, and to a dime on bottles that hold 24 ounces and more, chiefly plastic containers.

Californians empty 12 billion bottles or cans every year. Recycling the empty cans and bottles would save energy, ease the burden on swollen landfills and reduce litter on roads, beaches and parks. A nickel will do it.