What California’s expanded ‘bottle bill’ means for wineries, distilleries, consumers

With a goal to boost the state’s struggling recycling program and further reduce glass, aluminum, plastic, bimetal and certain other scrap materials from going into landfills, California’s Beverage Container Recycling Program is expanding as of Jan. 1, 2024.

Glass wine and spirits bottles will be included for the first time, as will large fruit and vegetable juice containers.

Consumers can earn 5 or 10 cents, depending on the container’s size, for each empty wine or liquor bottle turned in at certified redemption sites.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law last year allowing wine and spirits containers to be included under terms of the California Redemption Value (CRV) program.

Previously, the recycling program also only included 100% fruit juice containers under 46 ounces and 100% vegetable juice containers 16 ounces and under.

But mandatory juice, wine and spirits labeling is not required until July 1, 2025, and then only on bottles sold after this date using one of five labeling options — including the future possibility of a Quick Response (QR) code. Wine and spirits bottled before 2024 are exempt from CRV labeling, as are tasting room bottles.

Grants for local recycling programs

The Legislature has allocated $285 million for recycling reform. This includes funding for CalRecycle program modernization efforts. This aspect of recycling modernization comes with market development initiatives encompassing grants for recycled glass and funds for local programs designed to collect more containers.

As part of the new measures, the state’s alcohol beverage container manufacturers and distributors must register with CalRecycle to fulfill reporting and program payment requirements. Only beverages sold in California are subject to these new rules.

Manufacturers pay processing fees, a fraction of a cent per container, based on beverage container materials they use. For example, the fee a winery, distillery or other beverage maker would pay for glass as of the new year is 0.576 cents per bottle. So that would work out to $5,760 for a small-scale vintner that makes 10,000 12-bottle cases a year, or $57,600 and $576,000 for medium- and large-scale wineries producing 100,000 and 1 million cases annually.

Distributors pay the redemption value to the state’s CRV fund and may recoup this cost from retailers or consumers.

Beverage Container Recycling Program provisions do not apply to refillable containers, food and non-beverage containers, infant formula, medical food and milk.

Keeping pace with rising costs

The changes to the state’s 1986 Bottle Bill are estimated to add another 223 million containers annually into the recycling system beginning next year. Additional payments for beverage containers would be deposited in a continuously appropriated fund.

“These new reforms provide a financial lifeline to recycling centers and processors while helping consumers maximize their options for redeeming their deposits on beverage containers,” Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said.

“More California buyback centers are on the cusp of closing because program payments are failing to keep pace with the net costs associated with glass and plastic container recycling.”

The legislation addresses the current scrap-value crisis that affects small and medium-volume recycling centers’ financial viability, especially those in rural areas.

Decline in recycling centers

In recent years, more than 1,000 local recycling centers in California have closed — down from 2,400 at its peak a decade ago to 1,259 today — due to declining commodity market prices for recycled materials. There are 4,875 retailers who are required to redeem container deposits.

The provisions are also designed to stabilize the recycling market by providing fairer compensation for operators of beverage container redemption centers.

According to Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, “This measure will increase consumer opportunities to recycle and get cash back on empty containers by making common sense updates to the CRV program. Recycling payments for new and existing recycling centers will be stabilized against scrap market fluctuations.”

Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, said until now, “the economic viability of these redemption centers has been undermined at times when payments do not compensate centers enough if scrap prices fall quickly, resulting in shortfalls.”

Collins said the legislation will help more redemption centers stay in business, after almost half of these locations shut down since 2013.

Only 70% of containers are recycled

Californians have recycled 491 billion beverage containers since 1988. In 2022, participating redemption centers processed 19.5 billion containers of the 27.8 billion sold in the state, resulting in a 70% recycling rate, according to CalRecycle. While these numbers may appear high, annual totals have trended lower since 2018, when the recycling rate was 76%.

With the addition of wine and spirits, CalRecycle estimates about 1.1 billion additional containers could enter the program each year.

Current redemption rates are 5 cents for each aluminum, glass, plastic or bimetal container less than 24 fluid ounces; 10 cents for a container 24 fluid ounces or more along with a 1.5% administrative fee rebate retained by the distributor.

As of Jan. 1, bladders, boxes, pouches or similar containers of wine and distilled spirits regardless of size are accepted as well, redeemable for 25 cents.

Modernization grants available

The state’s $285 million modernization efforts include providing up to $4 million a year to encourage the use of cullet glass (broken or waste glass) in new bottles. Other efforts include providing $4 million a year for regional pilot programs providing glass collection bins at restaurants and other retail locations, along with a $1 million per year grant to encourage the use of rail transportation to move and empty glass containers at processing plants.

This law directs CalRecycle to spend $15 million a year for curbside and neighborhood drop-off programs, $10.5 million annually for municipal/county recycling and litter cleanup, and $10 million to fund litter reduction programs through the California Conservation Corps, with other funding supporting statewide recycling education and community recycling efforts.

CalRecycle Director Rachel Machi Wagoner said these overall efforts include reuse/refill system modifications for beverage containers, funding for beverage container business startup costs, and money for new high-tech redemption methods — such as reverse vending machines, mobile and bag-drop recycling — and initiatives designed to provide clean collection, transportation and remanufacturing.

“Everything we’re doing now and planning for the future is designed to make recycling more accessible to people, add more items for clean recycling and form local partnerships that can pool resources needed to fill regional gaps,” Wagoner said.

“We are redrawing and expanding convenience center boundaries to provide better coverage and offering consumers closer proximity to recycling and drop-off centers — including locations within grocery store parking lots.”

Retailer cooperatives and QR codes

Starting in 2025, retailers in areas without recycling centers must either redeem containers in-store or join new dealer (retailer) cooperatives. They must also submit a plan to CalRecycle on how they will buy back beverage containers, assess fees on dealers, report to CalRecycle, and meet standards for convenient redemption and material recycling.

“In 1986, no one saw the need for more information on CRV labels. With more states requiring such notices, and with many wine/spirits distributors shipping out of state, labels could become crowded,” Wagoner added.

She said there’s an eye on anticipated need for QR codes that could store more data and be a viable replacement for today’s labels. “CalRecycle will be discussing this possibility next year.”

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