We have long called for deposits on everything. California shows that even that is not enough.
Recycling used to be a good business in California, thanks to the California Redemption Value (CRV), a deposit on bottles mandated by law. At one point, a private company, rePlanet, had 600 locations where people could bring their bottles and cans and get the deposit back.
But on August 5 they closed down their last 284 recycling centers and laid off all 750 employees. According to the company:
With the continued reduction in state fees, the depressed pricing of recycled aluminum and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic and the rise in operating costs resulting from minimum wage increases and required health and workers compensation insurance, the company has concluded that operation of these recycling centers and supporting operations is no longer sustainable.
The California recycling system has been broken for a while; Consumer Watchdog did a study earlier this year that found that California consumers were only getting half of their deposits back because so many recycling centers had closed, and grocery and big box stores were not taking back bottles, even though they were legally supposed to.
"We warned just months ago that the bottle deposit program was in crisis and today’s closure shows consumers are being left in the lurch by the failure of the state to keep recycling centers open,” consumer advocate Liza Tucker says in the Consumer Watchdog news release.
Consumer Watchdog wants it to be mandatory that any retailer that sells bottles and cans should take them back and give back the deposit, demanding full producer responsibility. It is time for California to join other states and European countries that make bottle deposit systems work by making the beverage industry responsible for the products they make, package, distribute and sell.
There is a real lesson here. We have long called for deposits on everything, but the California experience shows that even with deposits, recycling doesn't work if the stuff has no value. Recycled PET is worthless now because natural gas is so cheap that virgin PET is cheaper than cleaning and processing recycled. Even aluminum recycling is broken because China used to buy a lot of it and now there is a glut in the USA, so the price has dropped. Aluminum on its own cannot support the recycling system, so there are fewer places to return the cans.
The only thing that really works is full producer responsibility: if you sell a product, the container is yours and the contents are the customers. That's how it used to work with beer, pop, milk, and water for the water cooler, and that's what we have to get back to if we are going to build a truly zero waste, circular economy.