California’s struggling Bottle Bill system is a mess. Here’s why
Some of us might have missed it.
But while we weren’t looking, the infrastructure that supports California’s 35-year-old Bottle Bill began to collapse, putting almost half its 2,448 certified beverage container redemption sites out of business over the past decade.
And that makes it harder for people to redeem the 5- and 10-cent deposits they pay on the bottles and cans they purchase.
Though legislators and state officials are trying to repair the system, wildly fluctuating values for aluminum and plastic have meant operators couldn’t sustain the cost of running buyback centers.
The Bay Area was particularly affected. By 2017 eight of the state’s 10 worst-served counties — including Sonoma County — were in the Bay Area.
Sonoma County once had 24 redemption centers. Until the launch of a new Sebastopol site last month, it was down to four. In some more rural Northern California counties, there are none.
“We’re all paying that 5 cents, but none of it is getting redeemed at the level it should,” Zero Waste Sonoma Executive Director Leslie Lukacs said.
Recyclable PET plastic values have rebounded to record highs in the past year, but the industry’s yearslong decline helped drag down California’s recycling rate from a peak of 85% in 2013 to around 70%, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle.
And that has left hundreds of millions of dollars in refundable 5- and 10-cent deposits unclaimed. By June the amount is expected to exceed $635 million, CalRecycle said, an amount that has more than doubled over the past two years.
Rachel Machi Wagoner, a Healdsburg High alumna who was appointed CalRecycle director in December 2020, said some of the problem can be attributed to soaring consumption of bottled and canned drinks during the COVID pandemic.
When restaurants, bars and breweries closed, people at home began consuming drinks that once came from beer taps and fountains. At the same time, the few redemption sites that were open were less available, and public interactions were limited.
“We’re at 27½ billion containers being sold in California every year,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “The number of containers recycled as of January 2022 was 19 billion containers (over the previous 12 months). That’s a record high number. We’ve never been at 19 billion before, but the recycling rate is still about 70%.”
Industry ‘death spiral’
Hundreds of redemption sites closed in 2019 and 2020, due in part to softened demand for aluminum cans because of a single company’s decision to transition from producing can sheet to auto body sheets, said Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute.
When the COVID shutdowns hit and people stopped driving, plummeting oil prices made it cheaper for producers to use virgin plastic than recycled PET plastic for most water and drink containers, Collins said.
The state CRV system includes a formula to offset market shifts and help redemption sites stay afloat. But material values are averaged over 12 months, so it takes a year for state subsidies to catch up with the lower prices center operators get for the bottles and cans they redeem and sell.
In addition, operators faced other costs, like rising rents and mandatory minimum wage increases.
State certification also requires redemption centers to be open at least 30 hours a week, including one weekend day, which means owners can’t cut costs by reducing hours.
The chronic underpayment and cumulative losses, Collins said, resulted in “a death spiral” that took out a whole chunk of the industry, including a company called rePlanet, which had hundreds of redemption sites at one point.
Many of the return center operators who went under were “small mom and pop businesses” who had no way to make it through, said Murray, with Californians Against Waste.
rePlanet shuttered 191 sites in 2016 and its remaining 284 last August. At one point it ran 19 centers in Sonoma County alone.