Genie in a Bottle: Unlocking the full potential of California’s bottle bill

May 2020 Report
Genie in a Bottle: Unlocking the full potential of California’s bottle bill

Why California’s bottle bill needs an update

California’s bottle bill is in crisis. Since its enactment in 1987, it has been hailed as one of the most successful and cost-effective recycling programs in North America, with recycling rates at 85%. However, over the last several years, redemption rates have fallen to 66% and will continue to decline due to the closure of recycling centers, making it difficult for citizens to return their used containers. For this reason, consumers receive on average only 2.65 of the 5 cents they pay upfront as a deposit. In addition, an opinion poll conducted in early March 2020 by YouGov shows that over a third (37%) of Californians are unaware of the existence of the bottle bill, and the majority (53%) do not use redemption centers to return their empty containers.

Since the arrival of coronavirus (COVID-19), onsite redemption has further declined as residents obey stay-at home orders, and some redemption centers have closed in response to the public health crisis. Recyclable empty containers are accumulating in peoples’ homes, awaiting return for redemption when stay-at-home orders are lifted, or otherwise going to landfill. There is now a need to completely reform the operational container-return process in California to one that uses “no-touch” reverse vending machines (RVMs), bag-drop systems, and other methods that reduce physical contact between people and materials. California also needs far more redemption sites scattered throughout the state to enable social distancing, rather than the scarcity of sites that currently leads to crowded recycling centers and long lines.

The Beverage Container Recycling Fund and its sub-accounts currently have approximately $400 million in fund balances from accumulation of unspent funds over the years, some of which should be invested in additional pilot programs and modernization for greater safety of material handling. The program currently fails to return $400 million in deposits to residents each year. An updated, convenient, and effective collection program with a redemption rate of at least 90% would provide instant refunds to residents of $1.2 billion per year, putting money directly into consumers’ pockets so they can spend it on necessities like food. Meanwhile, program revitalization will also ensure job security for the 8,000 people currently employed in the system and create 5,000 jobs, which are urgently needed in this time of economic uncertainty.

The purpose of this briefing is to show why California’s legislators should seize the opportunity to reform the bottle bill now—before the return system loses more recycling centers during the COVID-19 health crisis, and when the public needs their deposits back more than ever. The briefing presents the main findings of a study by independent consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting, which calculated the environmental and social benefits of modernizing the existing system to best-in-class (BiC) level. It is important to state that, although the current system has existing environmental and social benefits, these do not deliver as much as they might if the system was performing on par with other BiC systems, such as those in Oregon, Michigan, Norway, or Germany, where redemption rates are much higher.

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