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Opinion

Editorial: California’s bottle deposit system is broken — and poor people are the ones losing the most

It’s getting harder for Californians to redeem their deposits on beverage bottles and cans.
It’s getting harder for Californians to redeem their deposits on beverage bottles and cans.
(Getty Images)

On Saturday afternoons, the parking lot in 29 Palms Plaza is hopping. This is where the residents of the high desert city on the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park can find Stater Bros., the only grocery store within more than 20 miles. There’s also a Dollar Tree, a health club, a Burger King, a Christian fellowship church and other smaller businesses that together draw a regular flow of customers.

Until recently, one of the more popular destinations in this plaza was the rePlanet recycling center, a green shack that sits on the edge of the parking lot. It’s where people lined up to redeem empty beer cans and soda bottles for the nickel or dime deposit paid when the drinks were purchased, as mandated by the California Beverage Container Recycling program (better known as the “bottle bill”).

But on Aug. 5, the recycling buyback center didn’t open as usual. RePlanet, the state’s largest operator of independent recycling and processing sites, said it could no longer afford to operate, given the imploding global market for recyclable material and the state’s failure to increase processing fees to keep up with rising wages. The Ontario-based company, which had already closed 191 locations in 2016, shuttered the rest of its 284 locations and laid off its 750 employees, forcing residents in 29 Palms and other communities to haul their empties miles away to collect deposits. People without transportation, well, they may be out of luck.

This is not a isolated incident. In the last few years, about half of the state’s buyback facilities have shut down, with the pace accelerating this summer. In addition to the rePlanet closure, for example, a nonprofit that had operated buyback centers in Santa Cruz county for 31 years closed in July (and directed people to the rePlanet center instead). And in June, Santa Monica closed its only buyback center.

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Environmentalists and consumer advocates have been sounding the alarm about the breakdown of the state’s bottle bill for the last two years, pleading with lawmakers to shore up the program before the public’s willingness to recycle drops even further. Clearly lawmakers haven’t done so.

Without state action, there will likely be more closures, turning the bottle bill into a de facto tax for many Californians. And worse, it’s a tax that disproportionately affects people who don’t have the means to travel miles to get their deposits back.

In the short term, the state Legislature should shore up the program by directing CalRecycle, the state agency responsible for administering it, to use the roughly $154 million it has amassed in surplus deposits to increase subsidies to recycling processors. The state’s formula for calculating those payments is outdated, and it’s obviously not paying enough to keep recycling centers afloat, which is what the 1986 law intended. It might be too late to save rePlanet, but a better formula could entice the remaining centers to expand or nonprofits to start up new ones.

That will keep the program limping along for a few years, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem plaguing recycling: The supply of recycled materials is outpacing the demand, particularly for plastic. China once imported almost all of the state’s scrap plastic. But in 2018, the country closed to the door to most of it. It’s cheaper to make new plastic than to sort and recycle the often-contaminated scrap from the U.S. This is an unsustainable situation, and it seriously undermines the rationale for the bottle bill if cans and bottles just end up in the landfill.

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At the time it was adopted, the California Beverage Container Recycling program was a groundbreaking litter and landfill reduction effort. But we know now that recycling is not the answer to the world’s over-reliance on single-use packaging and that solutions need to focus on reducing waste at the source. That’s why we keep urging state legislators to pass comprehensive waste reduction laws, such as the proposal currently pending in Sacramento that would require producers of consumer-product packaging to reduce disposable plastic waste by 75% reduction by 2030.

But meanwhile, fix the darn bottle bill. It’s not fair to make consumers put down a deposit that they can’t possibly get back.


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