Fewer places to recycle highlight flawed program
California lawmakers on Aug. 31 passed legislation that could breathe life back into the state’s withering recycling industry which even those who run the program admit is stumbling.
Around since 1986, the 5- to 10-cent fee charged for a bottle or can was set up to give consumers incentive to return them, reducing the impact on landfills.
But it is not working. The biggest concern with the CRV (California Refund Value) program is the percentage of recyclables being turned in keeps dropping. It was 68% in 2021 after peaking in 2013 at nearly 85%.
One reason for the decline is there are fewer places to return the recyclables. Ten years ago there were 55 recycling centers in the four-county North Bay. Today there are 19. In the state, the numbers have dropped from 2,441 in 2012 to 1,262 in 2022.
Last month, the Press Democrat reported Brogard in Windsor would end its operation Aug. 26 after 19 years. The scrap metal site at the same location, West Coast Metals, is still open.
“We're not really happy about it because we have been a service to the community for so long,” owner Linda Gardner told the newspaper, “but just dollar-wise, we cannot keep open losing money every month.”
Ken Hawes, general manager of VALCORE Recycling in Vallejo, echoed those sentiments to the North Bay Business Journal.
“When minimum wage goes up we can’t raise prices because essentially we are not selling anything, so it’s really hard.”
Recycling, or buyback centers as they are also referred to, are the establishments that pay people for aluminum, glass and plastic that are part of the state’s CRV program. Every qualifying beverage container comes with an added nickel or dime fee paid by the consumer to the store. That money is then passed onto the state.
People can redeem that cash at a buyback center or surrender the money via curbside recycling or the trash.
Change could be coming
Because people are not turning in their recycling CalRecycle’s coffers are filling up with fees paid at the point of purchase, with the surplus weighing in at $635 million.
SB 1013 is designed to spend down that pot of cash, by making it easier for people to redeem CRV items with more locations and more items that qualify.
The bill awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature or veto by Sept. 30 would create more opportunities for people to redeem the beverage deposit.
The bill for the first time would put wine and liquor in the CRV program by adding a 10-cent fee to those bottles, as well as a 25-cent per item fee for a box, bladder, or pouch containing wine or distilled spirits.
The bill includes $4 million to establish a grant program for “collection of empty glass beverage containers from restaurants and on-sale retail licensed establishments.” Another $1 million grant would be established to transport those bottles by rail to a glass processing facility for recycling.
It sets up "convenience zones" through the state as determined by the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Within each zone there must be at least one certified recycling center that accepts all types of empty beverage containers and pays the refund value.
In the bill is another $10 million in grants for beverage container litter reduction programs and recycling programs.
Those who try to cheat the system will face higher penalties. Civil fines will go from $1,000 to $5,000, while intentional or negligent violations will double to $10,000.
Issues at the state level
“Though we recycled 18.5 billion beverage containers last year, we need to recycle more, and reforms are necessary to increase opportunities for redemption, convenience and overall access to the program for all Californians,” said Lance Klug, spokesman for CalRecycle, the more commonly known name for the department that oversees the CRV program.
“Recycling centers have not closed as a result of a single cause. Since the Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act passed 36 years ago, market fluctuations and consumer behavior changes have challenged the old models of beverage container recycling centers,” Klug said.
While the state is supposed to help recycling centers stay afloat with subsides, Klug acknowledged the market for recyclables and costs of doing business have outpaced that support. Subsides haven't matched the decline in the money centers get for bulk materials they collect such as plastic. And there are the normal costs of doing business, such as mandatory minimum wage and sick leave companies must pay.
The economic challenges of running a recycling center are hardly new. In August 2019, the state’s largest recycler, rePlanet, closed its nearly 300 outlets.