By Kevin Smith, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA NEWS GROUP
June 2, 2021
A report that examines California’s ailing recycling program places blame on the state’s waste haulers and retailers while supporting a bill that would make the beverage industry responsible for the redemption of empty containers.
The “Waste Haulers: Square Peg in the Circular Economy” report from Consumer Watchdog alleges trash haulers that collect recyclables curbside are contaminating the containers, which end up in landfills as a result. The pickups also divert refunds that would otherwise go to consumers.
California offers a 5-cent refund for containers under 24 ounces and 10 cents for containers of 24 ounces or more. In 2020, consumers got back little more than half of the nickel and dime deposits they paid into the system, which totaled $1.4 billion.
The report alleges waste haulers were paid $146 million in 2020 for recyclable containers that were collected curbside and in rural drop-off locations. It says the companies also receive more than $50 million a year in subsidies and giveaways from the state that have “never been shown to improve the quality of the materials they collect or to be financially necessary.”
“Waste haulers want to divert more bottles and cans into curbside bins, further reducing the flow of clean materials to redemption centers,” the report states.
Trash haulers introduced “single-stream” recycling in the 1990s as a way to protect garbage hauling and landfilling profits, Consumer Watchdog contends, so instead of separating glass, plastic, metal, paper and cardboard items into individual bins, the materials are routinely piled into one.
That has contaminated as much as a third of the containers that are tossed into recycling bins, dumped into trash trucks and eventually sifted at recovery facilities operated by haulers, the report said.
In a statement Tuesday, Waste Management said residential consumers placed more than 2 billion empty beverage containers in their curbside recycling bins in 2020, adding that private curbside waste haulers collected, processed and successfully recycled the materials.
The company said single-stream recycling has boosted both participation and the volume of recyclables collected, leading to a recycling increase of as much as 500%.
“The waste and recycling industry has been a key participant in assisting municipalities throughout the state to meet environmental regulations and goals,” Waste Management said.
The statement added that the commodity value from recycled aluminum and plastic containers plays an important role in covering the cost of collecting and processing lower-value materials, such as mixed paper and glass.
The initial vision
When California’s Bottle Bill was implemented in 1987, environmental groups and lawmakers envisioned a network of redemption centers in supermarket parking lots where consumers could turn in their empties in exchange for deposit refunds.
The plan worked well in the beginning. But California’s recycling network, administered by CalRecycle, has been eroded by the closure of recycling centers at supermarkets.
David Lawrence, former president and chief financial officer for rePlanet which once operated more than 600 redemption centers in California, attributed the closures to a reduction in state fees, reduced pricing for recycled aluminum and plastic, and a rise in operating costs resulting from minimum wage increases and health and workers compensation insurance.
The company closed the last of its locations in late 2019.
About 1,200 redemption centers exist today to serve California’s 40 million people, the report said. That’s half the number that existed in 2013, and it’s left 27 of the state’s 58 counties without such a center.
Retailers aren’t redeeming empties
The recycling problem has been compounded by many supermarkets — including 75% of Whole Foods Markets — that have opted out of recycling consumers’ bottles and cans, Consumer Watchdog said, although they must pay the state a daily fee to do so.
California’s consumer redemption rate for bottles and cans has declined as a result to 57%, well below other states, such as Michigan (89%), Oregon (86%) and Maine (84%).
A Whole Food spokeswoman noted Tuesday that the company has implemented a variety of changes to reduce waste headed to landfills. Those changes include removing plastic straws from its cafes and coffee bars across more than 500 stores and switching to smaller produce bags, which Whole Foods says saves more than 106 tons of plastic a year.
The grocery chain also replaced rotisserie chicken domes with bags that use 70% less plastic, and it has eliminated disposable plastics grocery bags at checkout counters.
The most recent figures provided by CalRecycle show the state’s recycling network provided $908.3 million in bottle and can refunds to consumers in 2019. Another $6.7 million went to administrative fees, $102.6 million for payment-processing subsidies and $41.5 million handling-fee subsidies were paid to the state’s recycling centers.
Senate Bill 38
Senate Bill 38, authored by Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, would streamline California’s recycling program and assign responsibility to the beverage industry with a redemption target of 85%.
“Our beverage container recycling rates have fallen below 60 percent because the system has collapsed and centers have closed across the state,” Wieckowski said in a recent statement.
SB 38 would require beverage distributors to form a beverage container stewardship organization by October 2022, and to submit a redemption and recycling plan to CalRecycle by the following April.
After regulations are adopted by the state agency the stewardship program would begin no later than July 2024.
SB 38 was scheduled for a Senate floor vote on Tuesday, June 1, although late in the day it appeared the vote would be delayed. After clearing the Senate, it will move to the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.
Supporters include of the legislation include Environment California, Save Our Shores and Food & Water Watch, among others, while opponents include California Beer and Beverage Distributors, the Association of California Recycling Industries and Waste Management.