Making grocery stores a recycling center seems unthinkable in this time of COVID-19

By Ronald Fong, Special to CalMatters

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The coronavirus crisis is teaching us much about our social infrastructure that we either didn’t know or took for granted.

We are learning, for instance, that our health care system is exactly that – a system that we all rely on, and one that can be overwhelmed by sudden stress.

We are learning that our front-line health care providers – nurses, physicians, first-responders, all manner of hospital and clinic workers – are heroes of the first order who put their well-being at risk to care for the sick and vulnerable.

And we are learning that our food-distribution system, of fundamental importance during a crisis, is strong and resilient. Farmers, food processing facilities, food distributors and grocers have stepped up to meet the demands of a worried public facing the uncertainty of sheltering in place.

To be sure, there have been instances of long lines and temporary shortages of certain items, but our food-distribution system is keeping up with demand. Deliveries of goods have been keeping pace, and grocers have been working overtime and hiring new workers to restock shelves.

Many of us are learning something that went mostly unnoticed before: that groceries are as important to our social infrastructure as roads, hospitals and fire stations. We need them to function smoothly to prevent social disruption.

It’s a lesson we need to keep in mind after this crisis passes.

With vigilance and broad public compliance with the safety measures public health experts have put forth, we can hope that the worst of the potential consequences will be averted. There is a long, uncertain road ahead, but this crisis will pass.

 When that moment comes, policymakers in California can again turn their attention to issues that are important but far less urgent than a global pandemic.

Among them will be the abysmal state of recycling in California that is leading to a resurgence of plastics being discarded into the environment or buried in landfills. It has been accompanied by a decline in redemption rates of beverage containers, despite the 5- or 10-cent California Redemption Value that consumers pay for each beverage container they purchase.

The market for plastic waste plummeted in 2017 after China stopped accepting most shipments. Not only has that made it difficult or impossible to recycle such items as yogurt containers and packaging shells, but it has also dried up revenue for neighborhood recycling centers.

About half of those centers have closed in recent years, and the result has been predictable: recycling rates have fallen. For all containers, the state’s most recent report shows a redemption rate of 76% and trending downward.

A number of ideas have been put forth in the Legislature to reduce plastic waste, including a phasing out of single-use plastic containers, requiring greater use of compostable materials and mandating higher amounts of recycled content in new containers in order to promote a more robust market for plastic waste.

All those ideas are ones that should be explored and refined.

But one idea that made little sense before seems absolutely unthinkable now – to complicate the mission of grocery stores by requiring them to also serve as recycling centers.

Grocers are in the business of providing food to people. Over the years, of course, that mission has also expanded to include providing necessary household supplies such as cleaning materials and, yes, toilet paper so that they are conveniently available.

Groceries don’t have the people or the space to handle the extra duty of processing containers for recycling, and the last thing anyone should be promoting is the notion of asking consumers to bring used, unsanitary materials into the very places they rely upon to provide a safe, secure food supply.

When we get past this extraordinary public health crisis, taking action to boost recycling in California will remain an important priority. Grocers will do their part in trying to help fashion solutions. But their primary role is now and should always remain to be dependable, resilient suppliers of food and household goods.

Californians depend on it.

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Ronald Fong is president and CEO of the California Grocers Association, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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