Little Pain, All Gain : State recycling program, initially beset with doubt, soars


Californians devour 12 billion beers and sodas a year. Recycling all those empty bottles and cans is not just kind to the pocketbook but kind to the environment. Fortunately, the ambitious program is working: Consumers are recycling an unprecedented 84% of all beer and soda bottles and cans sold in the state.

The state bottle law, which provides a nickel refund for two empty cans or 12-ounce bottles, has steadily gained momentum ever since it was first enacted in 1986. More than 90% of all aluminum cans are now returned. That is no surprise because those containers traditionally have the highest scrap value and are coveted by recyclers. The biggest gains have been with glass bottles and plastic containers. At least 78% of all empty glass bottles are now turned in; more than 53% of plastic containers are recycled.

Californians returned about 4.6 billion containers during the first six months of this year, according to the state Department of Conservation. That kept tons of beer, soda, mineral water, wine cooler and other containers out of overburdened municipal landfills.


Recycling has doubled since the law took effect nearly five years ago. Californians were slow to return containers when the payoff was a mere penny per empty. The Legislature last year increased that incentive to a nickel per two empty cans and 12-ounce bottles and to slightly higher for larger containers.

The cash payoff is funded in part by distributors, who pay 2 cents per container into the state recycling fund and from unclaimed deposits. That deposit is typically passed along to customers, who get it back if they recycle.

Californians can take great pride in a beverage container recycling system that is saving water, conserving energy and taking pressure off swollen landfills.