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December 6, 2009

The San Diego Union-Tribune

Bottle bill battiness / Legislators must restore recycling fund

We hardly needed a reminder that California’s budgetary process is beyond batty.

But last week’s news, reported by the Union-Tribune’s Mike Lee and Michael Gardner, that many of the state’s recycling centers may have to shut down because governors and the Legislature have for years been raiding recycling revenue to paper over gaps in the general fund has a “Through the Looking Glass” absurdity about it that trumps all the previous loony examples.

It seems that since 2002, officials have “borrowed” $450 million from the recycling account, primarily to fill structural gaps in the state’s general fund.

California’s recycling program was considered cutting-edge when the Legislature enacted a “bottle bill” in 1986, tacking a 5- or 10-cent California Refund Value, or CRV, charge onto most aluminum, glass or plastic beverage containers. The CRV is returned when the original consumer, or someone else, turns in the containers for recycling. The program has been widely popular with the public and is credited with keeping roadways and other areas relatively free of litter, at least in comparison to states that do not have similar programs.

While there is still money to pay people who turn in their bottles and cans, the siphoning has wiped out the subsidies that supported the nearly ubiquitous recycling kiosks in supermarket parking lots and other locations. At least six already have closed in San Diego County and, according to a coalition of recycling companies, about 1,200 statewide are in danger of shutting down.

In addition to increased litter and increased burdens on landfills, the closure of recycling centers has negative economic effects.

Many homeless people, of course, help support themselves by collecting recyclables. But in the midst of a recession many middle-class families as well have come to rely on CRV money to supplement household budgets. With fewer and more distant collection centers, recycling won’t pencil out for many – just one more recessionary slap.

In addition, urban conservation corps across the state, which train at-risk young adults to manage recycling programs, have fewer options and are being forced to lay off employees.

The state “borrowed” $188 million from the recycling fund in 2002 and $98.3 million the next year. Both loans were supposed to be repaid this year, but the Legislature postponed repayment until 2013, while transferring millions more out of the fund in 2008 and 2009.

This page has long called for Sacramento officials to rein in out-of-control spending and adopt honest, gimmick-free budgets.

But the outright lunacy of this particular budgetary legerdemain and its effect – putting at risk a popular, green, economically significant program – sadly forces us again to ponder just how broken the system is and just how oblivious our elected officials are.


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