Viewpoints

Recycling cans and bottles is hard enough. These bills could make it nearly impossible

The ugliest sausage made in Sacramento gets ground up in the last week of legislative session.

Upton Sinclair would have a muckraker’s field day with the rotten scraps of failed legislation the grocers lobby packed into two last-minute bills that just appeared Saturday through a process called “gut and amend.” The bills – Senate Bill 634 and Assembly Bill 54 – would release grocery stores and retailers from their legal obligations to recycle.

Californians plunk down $1.5 billion each year in nickel and dime deposits for our bottles and cans. That’s money we are supposed to get back, but only about half of the deposits come back directly to consumers because we can’t find a convenient place to return our empties.

Grocers and retailers are a big part of the problem. California is only one of two bottle deposit states that doesn’t require every retailer that sells bottles and cans to refund deposits. When no other recycling centers exist in an area, however, grocers and retailers have a duty to redeem. Too often, they don’t.

Opinion

A May survey by Consumer Watchdog of 50 Los Angeles-area grocery, convenience and drug stores – legally obligated to redeem deposits – found that two-thirds of the retailers we visited simply refused. More than half of the state’s violations against beverage retailers over the last five years were for illegally refusing to redeem bottle and can deposits.

Under a legislative deal decades ago, grocers retained their legal obligation to return California Refund Value (CRV) deposits, but they pawned off primary responsibility to recycling centers located on their lots or nearby. The problem now is that the redemption center infrastructure is nearly all gone.

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) estimates that California has less than 250 redemption centers on grocery store lots. The centers closed due to economic hardship, underpayment by the state and, often, mistreatment by grocers who moved them out and opposed their fiscal relief.

This means grocers will again be on the hook to accept bottle and can returns, as they do in other states.

Enter the end-of-session sausage.

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Without a place for consumers to get their deposits back, the CRV deposit would become a nonrefundable tax.

A more modest bill, AB 54 by Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, gives grocers affected by the August recycling center closures many more months to live up to their obligations.

What’s shocking is that both Glazer and Ting come from the Bay Area, where recent recycling center closures have caused about 8 million people to have to redeem at about 64 redemption sites, according to CRI. Consumers already have to stand in line for more than an hour to get their deposits back.

All around the world and the nation successful recycling programs focus on consumer convenience. They rely on all beverage vendors to redeem deposits at the point of purchase. Beverage makers – from Pepsi to Coors – take responsibility for recycling the “wrappers” their products come in.

This is the vision Gov. Gavin Newsom should restore to our broken bottle deposit system, which betrays both consumers and our climate change goals. Newsom should also order his regulators to crack down harder on retailers that aren’t living up to their redemption responsibilities. They pay a pittance for their refusal to redeem deposits.

Glazer’s bill would kill any hope for reform by letting the grocers out of legal obligations to return our money for years. Ting’s bill gives grocers only a short reprieve, but it’s still unwarranted and does little for consumers.

Come January, grocers should agree to a top-to-bottom overhaul of bottle deposits that puts consumer convenience first based on best practices. The legislature and governor should make consumers the priority and shelve the grocers’ power play.

Jamie Court is the president of the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog, www.consumerwatchdog.org
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