State Crushing Beverage Recycling Program?

You know things are bad in Sacramento when the programs making California money are on the verge of collapse.

Take the state's state-of-the-art beverage container recycling program, which could be getting crushed like a used soda can.

"For years California has courted a reputation as an eco-friendly, green-minded leader," reported the Sacramento Bee earlier this month, "but the state now finds its most basic program of recycling beverage bottles and cans mired in debt and litigation."

Dozens of supermarket recycling sites have shut down of late as the state's 23-year-old program, managed by the Department of Conservation through fees charged to beverage buyers, has been dinged by the recession, rising redemption rates and raids of its coffers by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

A recent San Diego Union-Tribune editorial reported more than $400 million was plucked out of the fund in the most recent budget, forcing more than 150 centers to close statewide this year with more expected closures to come. The governor and Democratic-controlled Legislature already had sticky fingers by then. The state "borrowed" $188 million from the recycling fund in 2002 and $98.3 million the next year. Both loans were supposed to be repaid this year, but the Legislature postponed repayment until 2013, while transferring millions more out of the fund in 2008 and 2009, the editorial notes.

While the governor and Legislature agree there's a problem (but discount one another's solutions), recycling centers are closing at such an alarming rate that the nonprofit advocacy group Californians Against Waste is warning the overall recycling rate will likely drop dramatically statewide as shoppers are forced to drive farther and wait longer to redeem their bottles and cans.

By law, supermarkets not served by parking-lot recyclers are supposed to either pay the state $100 a day--only one store is doing so--or redeem the containers themselves. Many do not, according to the Bee.

Two of the largest operators of collection centers, Tomra Pacific and NexCycle, have shutdown of about 90 centers recently, laying off more than 100 workers. Tomra, which projects losses of $9 million this year, has joined with two other firms to sue the state, seeking to "stop the dismantling" of the program.

As the Union-Tribune editorial points out, beverage recycling was considered cutting-edge when the Legislature enacted a "bottle bill" in 1986, tacking a 5- or 10-cent California Refund Value, or CRV, charge onto most aluminum, glass or plastic beverage containers. "The program has been widely popular with the public," states the editorial, "and is credited with keeping roadways and other areas relatively free of litter, at least in comparison to states that do not have similar programs."

Asked by the Weekly to comment on all this, Department of Conservation officials pointed to the pending lawsuit but were also kind enough to copy and paste a link to the Bee piece in their return email.

The program's collapse could reinstate the problem that led to the legislation in the first place: too many recyclable beverage containers winding up in--and burdening--California landfills. Meanwhile, because recyclables provide income for homeless and working poor families, the collection center closures could not be happening at a worse time.

Speaking of bad timing, the scrap value of aluminum cans has plummeted in the past year, and while President Barack Obama bounces around the country boasting about new green jobs, loss of the state recycling program would eliminate hundreds of existing ones.

"This page has long called for Sacramento officials to rein in out-of-control spending and adopt honest, gimmick-free budgets," concludes the San Diego editorial. "But the outright lunacy of this particular budgetary legerdemain and its effect-putting at risk a popular, green, economically significant program-sadly forces us again to ponder just how broken the system is and just how oblivious our elected officials are."

You know what we should really recycle?


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