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September 29, 2009

Press Democrat

Bottle shock
Wine industry is missing in action from state's recycling program

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Lay Leoun of Santa Rosa drops off glass bottles at the Redwood Empire Disposal recycling center in Santa Rosa in this August 2008 photo.

California’s bottle bill is a success in spite of itself.

Last year, consumers recycled 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’s the best rate of return since 1997, according to the state Department of Conservation. More important, it’s a huge volume of trash that didn’t end up in landfills — or creeks, parks or alongside roads.

Imagine the possibilities if the program was designed for the convenience of consumers rather than retailers and recyclers and didn’t give special, exempt status to certain containers, most notably for wine, liquor and milk.

Oregon was the first state to impose recycling fees for beverage containers. Its 38-year-old program is simple: Consumers pay a 5-cent deposit on a can of soda or a bottle of water, and their money is refunded when they return the empties to the store.

Regrettably, Oregon has many of the same loopholes as California. Still its recycling rate tops 85 percent, a testament to the simplicity of its program, which allows consumers to redeem their deposits at the same stores where they buy beverages. The recycling rate in states without deposit laws is less than 40 percent. California’s has never been better than 82 percent for any single year.

When California adopted its bottle bill in 1986, legislators succumbed to pressure from retailers, which didn’t want to take back empty cans and bottles, and recyclers, which objected to the competition. So, to redeem your deposit, you have to make a special trip to a recycling center. Most people just toss empties into recycling cans, leaving deposits to trash haulers.

Deposits that go unredeemed also are supposed to subsidize recyclers, helping pay for recycling centers in supermarket parking lots. But the state systematically drained that fund to help balance the budget, prompting warnings that some centers may close.

A bill pending on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk would address that shortfall by doubling the deposit on 20-ounce containers to a dime, the rate now charged for containers holding at least 24 ounces. The bill also would extend the law to cover cartons, jugs, boxes and foil pouches used for juice.

Still exempt would be wine (but not wine coolers), liquor (but not beer) and milk (unless it’s from rice, soy or another grain). Why? Certainly not because a refundable deposit would stop anyone from buying a $20 bottle of wine.

Some say that wine bottles don’t get littered as often as soda bottles. That’s not much of an excuse, especially considering that a major goal of the bottle bill is to promote recycling.

The real answer is the industry spends big and lobbies aggressively. But with its marketing emphasis on lifestyle and bucolic scenery, the wine industry should be a recycling leader, not a spectator.


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