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December 7, 2009

Press Democrat

Bottle bill
State budget raids threaten to undermine recycling program

In a nutshell, that’s why California’s beverage container recycling program has been a success. There’s a cash incentive to keep empty soda bottles out of gutters, streams, parks and landfills.

But the program is in jeopardy.

It’s not because people lost interest. Last year, consumers returned 74 percent of the 21.9 billion aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers that were sold subject to a 5- or 10-cent deposit. That was the best rate of return since 1997.

What’s happened is that legislators and the governor, in their search for cash, have turned the recycling program into a piggy bank.

We’re not talking loose change here: Almost $452 million has been siphoned from the recycling fund since 2002, mostly to deal with the perennial state budget mess. This year, lawmakers took $99.4 million, leaving the fund essentially empty.

Of course, these diversions are described as “loans.” Just don’t hold your breath waiting for them to be repaid voluntarily.

The money came from unredeemed deposits, which make an inviting target as the state looks for new sources of revenue. But that money was key to one of the compromises that got the bottle bill passed in 1986. It is supposed to help pay for the redemption centers that opened in hundreds of shopping centers.

The centers were created because supermarkets objected to taking back empties — a system that has been extremely successful in Oregon, where recycling rates routinely top 85 percent. But the stand-alone centers need subsidies because recycling, despite its popularity, isn’t always a profitable venture.

With the money gone, dozens of recycling centers are closing, leaving people with fewer places to return empties and reclaim deposits. Many will toss empty cans and bottles in their blue barrels, but they will be abandoning their deposits with no guarantee the money will be spent to further recycling efforts.

An alliance of redemption center operators is suing the state to try to get the money back.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he will make a proposal to solve the problem in January. Unfortunately, he missed a chance to help the program earlier this year when he vetoed SB 402.

The bill would have doubled the deposit on 20-ounce containers to a dime, the rate now charged for containers holding at least 24 ounces. In his veto message, Schwarzenegger noted that wine and liquor containers were still exempt. That exemption has no defense and should be eliminated.

Inexplicably, he complained that the bill didn’t prohibit raids on the recycling fund — while proposing just such a raid for this year’s state budget. It will take a serious proposal, with real guarantees, to restore Schwarzenegger’s credibility on this issue.


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