In summary

Californians pay more than $1 billion in recycling deposits annually but few people bother to redeem the empties. The state’s sparse redemption system is largely to blame. A new law could help grow and modernize bottle recycling and give consumers significant returns.

Guest Commentary written by

Liza Tucker

Liza Tucker

Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog. She is a veteran journalist who has been an editor at Marketplace and covered business for The Washington Post.

Californians pay about $1.5 billion in recycling deposits every year on beverages from bottled water to beer. But less than 1 in 4 people bother to redeem the empties – while more than three-quarters lose nickel and dime deposits to curbside bins. 

That’s largely because so few redemption centers exist that the state now holds $672 million in unrefunded deposits that really belong to the public.

In California, there is just one redemption center for every 31,000-plus people. Michigan supermarkets put this situation to shame. Each one offers roughly 900 Michiganders redemption service on the spot. In Oregon, both supermarkets and automated depots offer 2,000 consumers apiece the same convenience.

Adding insult to indignity, we forfeit millions of empty containers to waste hauler recycling bins. Those trash haulers bill the state for our California Refund Value, or CRV, while contaminating and landfilling at least a third of those empties.

California enacted a way out of this morass last year with Senate Bill 1013, which was authored by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins. The law finally puts the responsibility for California CRV refunds onto stores that sell the products whose shells become trash. In 2025, major supermarkets and big box stores selling CRV beverages will have to take them back.

SB 1013 greenlights the formation of supermarket cooperatives that can offer redemption service in every area that lacks a redemption center. But for these new services to provide real convenience for consumers, CalRecycle needs to write the right requirements.

Studies show that consumers find it easiest to get CRV refunds where they shop, and that offering those refunds on store premises often increases sales. Imagine going to your local supermarket and feeding your empties into a reverse vending machine for CRV refunds without waiting more than a few minutes – or dropping off a bag of empties at a storage container on a supermarket parking lot that later credited a consumer’s PayPal account; or visiting a modern recycling depot featuring both technologies.  

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Toni Atkins

Toni Atkins

State Senate, District 39 (San Diego)

Toni Atkins

State Senate, District 39 (San Diego)

How she voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 39 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 46%
GOP 23%
No party 24%
Campaign Contributions

Sen. Toni Atkins has taken at least $1.9 million from the Labor sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents 19% of her total campaign contributions.

For consumers to have that access, all CalRecycle needs to do is what some of the successful states have already done: require that supermarkets offer a specific number of new automated redemption locations – based on population density – and make sure they are open at least 70 hours per week.

If CalRecycle delivers the right regulations, it will enable higher rates of  bottle deposit refunds and container recycling. That means more money in consumers’ pockets and less landfilling, littering, energy use, toxic and greenhouse gas emissions. 

It also means more jobs and recycled products in a so-called circular economy that Gov. Gavin Newsom himself has called for.

For CalRecycle, the regulatory checklist is straightforward:

•Unveil regulations that require at least one automated redemption point for every 9,000 people in every area designated for a recycling center so California can hit the statutory goal of consumers returning 80% of all CRV containers.

•Direct supermarket cooperatives to propose where new automated redemption points go based on population density.

•Require at least three automated points of redemption at three different supermarkets within a previously unserved area, or one automated community redemption depot.

•Designate that every big box-style store selling CRV beverages provides consumers with at least two automated recycling machines on-site.  

•Ensure that both supermarket redemption locations and depots are open at least 70 hours a week – and not just during the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours when most people are working.

•Hurry up and dispense the $73.3 million set aside in the budget for supermarkets and recyclers to automate.  

Building a modern, 21st-century system that works for everyone means providing simple, automated convenience for recycling refunds. That is something California, a state known for its innovation, should have no trouble doing.

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