Critics say California’s bottle bill is failing consumers; as redemption rates drop, recycling centers close

Fewer redemption locations mean less money returned to customers, more recyclables in landfills.

June 3, 2020

The National Stewardship Action Council (NSAC), Sacramento, and the Changing Markets Foundation, London, are sharing new information about California’s bottle bill and where they say there is room to improve. 

In a report released by the two organizations, they found that redemption rates have fallen to 66 percent, according to data calculated by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI). The state goal is 80 percent, and the state once had an 85 percent redemption rate.

While CalRecycle disputes the 66 percent figure and says the redemption rate is currently 75 percent, it does agree that the public needs the ability to redeem beverage containers.

Heidi Sanborn, with the NSAC, and Susan Collins, with CRI, which is based in Culver City, California, both say they feel this is the time to make changes as more recycling and redemption centers have closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NSAC is made up of government, non-government, businesses and consumers that advocate for a responsible circular economy, and the CRI says it works to increase recycling so no material is wasted.

In an op-ed for CalMatters, they both discuss their thoughts on Gov. Newsom’s decision to allow stores to stop accepting bottles for 60 days amidst the pandemic. Sanborn and Collins say the state should use this time to upgrade the redemption process.

The bottle bill has been in place in the Golden State since 1987. Consumers are charged an additional 5 cents for beer, malt, wine and distilled spirits coolers and all nonalcoholic beverages, except milk, that are less than 24 ounces and 10 cents more per beverage container that is more than 24 ounces at the time of purchase.  Customers receive refunds in these amounts when they bring those empty bottles back. While Collins and Sanborn say they have dedicated years to working on this issue, they say it’s still not fixed. Redemption centers are closing, creating recycling deserts. Plus, those closures are putting people out of work.

One of their many suggestions includes placing reverse vending machines in front of grocery stores. It would allow for touch-free returns but isn’t as financially beneficial for the grocery stores, as they don't get the refunds like regular recycling centers do. 

“The reverse vending machines could be used in grocery stores if two things happen. Number one, the grocery stores would need to be willing to use them, but there are also some important technical changes that need to be made in the law that are discouraging their use,” Collins says. The second issue is that California doesn’t limit the size of bottles returned, so 2-gallon jugs wouldn’t fit inside those vending machines.

In their op-ed, Collins and Sanborn also discuss how thousands of more jobs could be created if more recycling centers were open and more product was coming in.

Also in the NSAC and Changing Markets Foundation report, “Genie in a Bottle: Unlocking the full potential of California bottle bill,” it says more than 1,200 recycling centers have closed since 2013, leaving residents with few options when it comes to returning their cans and bottles. Sanborn says it’s hard to justify people driving long distances in fossil fuel vehicles just to redeem a few dozen bottles. That report also shares a startling statistic about the remaining recycling centers. If half of those were to close, the number of tons of beverage containers landfilled would rise by 30 percent.

CalRecycle says this March it issued a report to the California legislature that contained ways to reduce or entirely eliminate the public costs of supporting profitable recycling centers and increase public access to recycle. In that report, options were offered to reconfigure convenience zones, add more redemption methods and enhance recycled material markets to help improve the cost-effectiveness of recycling centers.

Sanborn and Collins say that while those improvements are just that, improvements, a glaring red flag hasn’t been addressed. Nearly $400 million that’s been gathered over the years through this law hasn’t been returned to residents. Sanborn and Collins say they worry those funds, if they sit much longer, could be used by the legislature elsewhere instead of improving the bottle bill. 

For Collins, this isn’t just about the money sitting unspent, it’s also about the state keeping its end of the promise. “If people don’t have an easy way to recycle and get their redemption money back, the state at that point has broken the social contract.”

The state’s bottle bill faces many challenges which have been exacerbated by and the inability for residents to return bottles and cans because of closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. “At the end of the day, they’ve always been essential, this is just a reminder.” Sanborn says about redemption centers. “If we’re going to make things Earth can’t digest, we have to keep them out of nature, and we need to have a circular economy.”

Ideally, Sanborn and Collins would like to see redemptions increase, helping people hurting to find work get some money in their pockets and also keeping more recyclables out of landfills. However, they say they both realize challenges lay ahead, especially with COVID-19. Sanborn says she believes changing this bill could be a part of California’s COVID-19 response as bottle redemption opens back up in coming weeks.