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  • Writer's pictureShelly Albaum

California's Recycling Crisis

In 1986, California became one of eleven states to pass a "bottle bill," requiring a nickel deposit on beverage containers. [The other states were CT, HI, IA, MA, ME, MI, NY, OR, VT...and formerly DE.]  The plan was for anyone selling beverages to collect a five-cent "deposit" that would be returned to the buyer when the container was returned for recycling. Beverage sellers had three options: They could either accept recycling (and return deposits), pay a $100 daily fine, or rely on convenient nearby recyclers to do the dirty work. Many people continued to toss their used cans on the ground, but an army of homeless people were willing to salvage containers from trash cans and gutters to collect deposits from the convenient recyclers, who in turn made their profit by re-selling the bottles and cans cans to industrial recyclers. As a result, recycling rates in California were very high: over 60% for glass, over 70% for plastic, and over 80% for aluminum. The logistics of getting your nickels back, though, were more complex. In theory, every supermarket was required to accept returns. In reality, that would be unclean, so in practice all beverage sellers relied on the presence of a convenient recycling location nearby. Convenient recycling locations in parking lots near supermarkets offered recycling Californians the opportunity find companionship and solidarity standing in line with their like-minded virtuous recycling neighbors -- especially their homeless neighbors -- on asphalt sticky with beer and soda, and cluttered with pop-tops, while an otherwise unemployable person weighed garbage bags full of used bottles and cans, dutifully warning each applicant that redemption would be denied if there were discovered even a single hypodermic needle or used button-battery bulking up the weight of the metal.  More subtle scammers would spray the empty cans with hose so that a few drops of water found their way inside, weighing down each can just a little. The antidote to THAT scam was for the recycler to dump the proffered cans into a wire-mesh bin and shake out the water before weighing. Such dramas passed for entertainment while standing in line. The procedure was gross and unsanitary, but if you consumed enough bottles, you could regularly get back $50 or $100, rather than donate it to your municipal curbside recycling provider. Or you could hand your garbage bags full of crushed cans to the probably-homeless person next to you in line and pray that the lucky recipient was a virtuous homeless person, NOT a homeless person who was homeless because they deserved to be homeless for not making themselves useful enough to rich people.

The Fall But 30+ years of utopian ecological virtue came crashing to the ground one day last August when RePlanet, the company that operated every single filthy parking lot recycling location across the state of California, abruptly closed its doors, fired the last of its 1,000 employees, and shuttered the last of its 500 recycling locations. And with that, the state of California leapt to its feet, and said, "Wait, what?" That was more than five months ago. Since then, the state has continued to collect millions of dollars in nickels, but nobody -- not even the homeless people -- can easily get those nickels back. Wait, did I say "millions?"   The actual number of CRV containers sold in California in 2017 was over 25 BILLION, which means

over a BILLION dollars in nickels per year -- hundreds of millions of which dollars have been collected since August. Is the ongoing crisis the accumulation of used beverage containers in my garage?  Or the accumulation of litter along the state's roadsides?  Or is the crisis the hundreds of jobs that were lost performing a desperately needed (indeed, state-mandated) service?  Or is the crisis the state's illegal confiscation of hundreds of millions of dollars from its citizens? Or is the crisis the thousands of poor or homeless people who relied on recycling for their income, and now are poorer than poor? Or is there no crisis at all? A consumer watchdog group, aptly named "Consumer Watchdog," urged California to require supermarkets to redeem the containers, because that's what the law requires. California thinks the problem is more complicated than that.  If only China had not stopped taking our plastic... If only container manufacturers had not started making beverage containers so thin and light that the recycled material isn't worth much any more...  If only Alcoa hadn't stopped using recycled aluminum in its big Knoxville plant... If only we weren't relying on bullshit neoliberal market solutions to implement what ought to be a government service! Last year, before RePlanet closed, the California legislature passed a bill that increased recycling center subsidies and allocated a $3M surplus to create recycling opportunities in underserved areas. Consumer Watchdog called the measure "garbage" and "not a full fix."  But the "garbage" bill never became law, because Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it on the grounds that it did not include "fiscal sustainability" (by which he means a "market-based solution") among other things.  So the recycling crisis started last August.  By September, the California legislature had proposed emergency legislation to address the issue.  The emergency bill allocated $5M to municipalities to apply for grants to (one distant day) begin a recycling program, and $5M to subsidize the few remaining recycling operations (NOT convenient parking lot centers that redeem consumer containers), and suspended the requirement that grocery stores redeem containers. This is "emergency" legislation in the Orwellian sense that it contributes to the emergency, or magnifies it, or extends it, rather than resolving or ameliorating it. In the wake of RePlanet's departure, thousands of stores in California should be accepting recycling, from liquor stores to Walmart, but in practice they simply do not, found an NBC news investigation in November.  In response to an inquiry as to whether California would stop collecting the deposits until redemption facilities were available, Governor Newsom said that "a statute-directed program cannot be suspended."  Weirdly, the statutory requirement to collect nickels cannot be suspended, according to Governor Newsom, but the requirement to GIVE BACK the nickels pursuant to the SAME statute CAN be suspended. Luckily, I went to law school, so I'll go look up which canon of statutory construction the Governor is referring to... Just kidding. He made that shit up. On November 22, Scott Smithline, the Director of California's Recycling Agency announced his retirement. California's Secretary of the EPA said, "...While we are sad that he is leaving, we understand his decision to focus more on his family."  Indeed. Consumer Watchdog says that Californians forfeited $308M in deposits in 2018 because it was difficult to find a recycling center. And it has since become infinitely more difficult.

So what next for California's empty root beer bottles? Three weeks ago, in mid-December, California fined CVS pharmacies $3.7M for refusing to accept recycling, and is looking to fine other large retailers that fail to either (1) redeem used containers or (2) pay the statutory $100 daily fine. My guess is that the state will generate modest revenue from fines, and more significant revenue from convincing thousands of retailers to pay $100 daily fines.  But how raising more money -- on top of the billion dollars a year the state is already collecting in bottle deposits -- actually leads to recycling or repays consumer deposits is beyond me. Anatoly France in 1894 noted that the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread. And so, too, will California shakedown retailers and consumers alike, and without having to recycle or redeem a single can. The California legislature ended 2019 without agreeing on any solution.  And they aren't likely to agree on a solution, either, because a significant portion of the state -- the same people who have already banned plastic bags and plastic straws, and who hate the very existence of bottled water -- are ready to ban all disposable beverage containers, thus entirely obviating the need for recycling.

I was recently lectured by one of these New Age Fundamentalist Consumer Ascetics that people may WANT disposable containers, but they don't NEED them. People could, for example, take a giant thermos to the supermarket and fill it with a couple gallons of soda or beer, and thus save the environmental strain of two dozen containers. If you don't like that, I was told, then drink some water out of your damn faucet. This argument against disposable bottles in service of "the environment" cuts quite a wake. There are all kinds of things that we want but don't need, and of which the elimination might generate environmental benefits.  For example, we don't need professional sports teams, movie theaters, or airports, all of which generate traffic, noise, and solid waste. Meditation, yoga, and traveling less are clean alternatives advocated by the New Age Fundamentalist Consumer Ascetics.  HOWEVER, the people who make this argument also tend to be cat-owners, and so now the shoe goes on the other foot: The environmental toll of the pet food industry is severe, not even counting the direct impact of cats killing the local wildlife.  Clay kitty litter is costly and non-sustainable to mine, and even worse to dispose of. And clumping kitty litter is no better, because flushed the residue can kill sea otters. If they take away my bottled water, I'm taking away their cats. And their yoga mats will have to be made from pricey locally sourced organic fibers, no inexpensive extra-thick, enhanced-traction, PVC foam cores.  And no zipper bags for those organic "veggies," either -- zipper bags do environmental damage throughout their lifecycle. California will lead the nation once again, this time ushering in a total cultural war of everyone-against-everyone as we all become intolerant of each other's personal preferences.   Or maybe it doesn't end in war; just the collapse of civil society through indifference to the idea that we should all try to get along.

Time will tell.  For now, the crisis continues...

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