California may add wine, liquor bottles to recycling program

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California will add wine and spirits containers to its onerous recycling program while giving liquor retailers another option to collect empty bottles and cans, under a measure moving forward Wednesday. But critics say the bill would also give hundreds of millions of dollars to companies they say don’t need the incentives.

It’s “a huge opportunity” to divert hundreds of additional tons of waste from landfills, said Assembly Democrat Phil Ting, who brought the bill to the Assembly. “This bill will be a giant leap.”

In addition, distributors could form a cooperative to collect the containers as an alternative to the current law that requires stores to take back licenses, according to a proposal by Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins.

Fewer people have been able to claim their deposit refunds in recent years as many neighborhood recycling centers have closed. Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog said many grocers refuse to take empties back to the store as required.

The bill does not specify how the cooperative would operate, but would require distributors to submit their plan to state regulators for approval. It would also increase the penalty for breaking the law from the current $1,000 to $5,000 a day, and for willful violations from $5,000 to $10,000 a day.

California consumers pay a nickel every time they buy a 12-ounce (355 milliliter) bottle or can, and a penny for containers over 24 ounces (709 milliliters).

They’re supposed to get that money back by returning the bottles and cans, an incentive so the containers don’t end up in landfills but can be recycled into new products.

The proposal would include a 25-cent deposit and refund on wine and spirits sold by the box, bag or case.

Hawaii, Iowa, Maine and Vermont already have deposit programs, including these containers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The addition of wine and spirits will bring nearly $18 million more annually to the state’s recycling fund starting in 2024, along with annual costs of more than $6 million, the California Department of Recycling and Resource Recovery, commonly known as CalRecycle, predicts.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has proposed grants for automated recycling machines, also known as reverse vending machines, at high schools, colleges and retail stores, as well as state-funded cell phone recycling programs in rural areas and other places with few options recycling. He has also proposed temporarily doubling refunds to encourage recycling and return a portion of nearly $600 million in unclaimed deposits, but that double refund is not included in the current proposal.

Consumer Watchdog, the Container Recycling Institute and The Story of Stuff Project countered that Atkins’ proposal contains too much pork for companies, costing nearly $400 million over the next five years to market growth and quality incentives that groups argue that they are not needed.

Of that, $300 million will go to glass container manufacturers, including E&J Gallo Winery’s Gallo Glass Company, the nation’s largest glass container plant, they said.

Consumer deposits “shouldn’t be collateral for hugely profitable companies like Gallo,” Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog said in a statement. “These grants don’t help existing redemption centers that are dying on the vine, they only help manufacturers and larger recyclers.”

The recycling institute withdrew its support, saying the grants would put “pressure on the programme’s ability to operate with financial viability”.

Consumer Watchdog supported the distributor cooperation portion of the bill, which is similar to previous legislative proposals. That option “could work to create better access if the rules are properly drafted and enforced,” the group said.

But the measure cleared the Assembly on a 54-0 vote with no opposition voiced. It was headed to the Senate for a final vote before going to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

“This is an issue that was done what I call the right way” with years of intensive negotiations, said Assembly Democrat Adam Gray. “We came to a solution … good for the industry, good for the state of California.”

Without addressing the grants, Atkins said her bill would “reduce consumer confusion” by adding wine and spirits containers, while potentially more than doubling the recycling of those containers from the current 30 percent. She said her bill also gives dealers “a new path to compliance” with the state’s recycling law.

A second bill addressed to Newsom is designed to help reduce recycling fraud by barring cash payments from processors to recyclers.

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