Is California’s recycling program ready for an overhaul?

Michael Swadberg turns in bottles at a Bottledrop Oregon Redemption Center in Gresham, Oregon, in July 2015.
Michael Swadberg turns in bottles at a Bottledrop Oregon Redemption Center in Gresham, Oregon, in July 2015. Associated Press file

California’s beverage container recycling program isn’t likely to win any awards for being consumer-friendly.

In Oregon, which adopted the nation’s first bottle bill 46 years ago, most retailers that sell beer, soft drinks and bottled water also collect the empty bottles and cans and refund the 10-cent recycling deposits. Only in the past several years has Oregon started allowing some retailers to direct consumers to recycling centers.

California started with the recycling center model and is suffering the ill effects of allowing the system to become even less convenient as more than 500 recyclers around the state shut their doors over the past few years.

In a recent letter to the editor, Charles Myer of Guerneville described the nuisance of searching for a recycling center in Sonoma County and the frustration of arriving to find out that he could only get refunds for 50 cans or bottles per visit. “That’s hardly worth the long drive,” he said.

Laura Baker of Healdsburg echoed Myers’ frustration, noting that her local recycling center closed down more than a year ago, “and nothing has been done to ease the inconvenience, which means that most of these materials are heading for the landfill, which defeats the purpose of recycling to begin with.”

Their experiences reflect a general erosion of the recycling program, which was established in 1987 with the twin goals of reducing litter in our communities and the amount of solid waste piling up in landfills by offering a cash incentive to recycle the 20 billion-plus beverage containers sold in California every year.

Millions of pounds of aluminum and glass have been diverted from the landfills over the 30-year life of the program, but the recycling rate for beverage containers dipped below 80 percent last year, according to a new report from the state’s waste management agency.

The 79.8 percent return rate was the lowest since 2008, when 74 percent of cans and bottles were recycled, and marked a sharp decline from a peak of 85 percent in 2013.

Many, probably most, Californians put beverage containers in their recycling bin and allow trash collectors to redeem the deposits. So the declining recycling rate is probably related to the closure of redemption centers — about 1 in 4 statewide, by some estimates.

The centers earn money by selling the scrap materials they collect, augmented by payments from the state. Scrap prices have declined sharply since 2014 and, according to the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst, state payments haven’t kept pace with the changing market.

Recycling advocates point out that the state recycling fund, which is fed by unredeemed deposits, has a balance of about $250 million. State lawmakers need to determine whether spending some of that surplus could reverse the tide of recycling center closures — or whether the program is due for an overhaul.

Meanwhile, communities reviewing their trash collection services must ensure that beverage containers tossed into blue recycling bins are, indeed, being recycled and not ending up in a landfill somewhere.

Editor’s note: Editorials from other newspapers are offered to stimulate debate and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Tribune.