Kathy Englar: Retailers must take back empty CRV containers

As we brace for the end of shoulder season, we expect that summer visitors will once again bring crowded grocery stores and trash. Volunteers cleaning up lakes, beaches, and our commercial areas through programs like Clean Up the Lake, Truckee Day, and the Litter Corps are kicking into gear. But why rely on clean-up when we can make a bigger impact upstream on plastic pollution and litter by making it easier to redeem your California Redemption Value (CRV) deposits?

We live in a CRV recycling desert. Each time you buy a soda or a beer, you pay a 5 cent CRV fee. But in Truckee our four grocery stores do NOT participate in refunding that deposit. (Kudos to New Moon for taking back those glass Straus milk bottles, but how about the beverage bottles and cans, too?) The only place to recycle those CRV containers is the Eastern Regional Landfill, which is a money-losing journey with $6/gallon gas. We dutifully direct our empties to the blue recycling bins and Keep Truckee Green’s website indicates that the recycling rate per person has doubled in the last four years. Good job! But recycling — rather than redeeming — your CRVs results in two issues: our mixed stream recycling means that your plastic bottles are down-cycled into other products rather than re-made into new plastic, which is where the greatest environmental mitigation lies, and you’re paying a 5 cent fee on each beverage but it’s a long shot to recover that cash. Since Californians buy over 28 billion beverages each year, CalRecycle has built up a $600 million (that’s more than half a BILLION!) in unclaimed deposits.

We’re environmentally conscious in California and we were a leader in 1986 with our first bottle bill that set up the redemption system. But the system hasn’t evolved these last 35 years. Michigan, in contrast, has more than 10 times the number of redemption centers for a much smaller population; they have 44 times the number of redemption centers per capita than California and redeem 89% of their recyclables to our 59%.

CalRecycle recently announced a short-term proposal to double the redemption to 10 cents. Paying a deposit to get bottles returned for recycling or reuse is a proven concept, as long as there’s a place to return them. That’s the problem we face in Truckee and throughout the state, drop-off points have disappeared – half the state’s recycling centers have closed in recent years. CalRecycle is letting our retailers off the hook: there’s no enforcement of the requirement that retailers take back the CRVs they sell.

Our representatives and CalRecycle are considering options right now for the new fiscal year budget and improving the bottle bill is part of that discussion. I’d like to see CalRecycle step up enforcement with the retailers, who are either ignoring or taking advantage of a low cost loophole to opt out of the redemption program. I visit the Eastern Regional Landfill almost never, but I patronize one of our area grocery stores weekly, and the state should require reverse vending machines for CRV redemption such as I’ve seen outside grocery stores in Oregon, especially at the high volume grocers in Truckee. Even if tourists continue to litter our trails, parks, and beaches, at least there would be increased incentive to pick up the bottles and cans and collect the CRV value.

Polls show that Californians favor deposit return systems because they understand their impact in reducing waste, even with the added step required to return empties. If we want to overcome the plastic crisis, policymakers and businesses need to meet consumers halfway and make returns as easy as purchases. If we can evolve the state bottle bill, we can ensure people actually get their deposit money back and better protect the environment.

Kathy Englar lives in Truckee

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