A Nickel and A Dime

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rePlanet, the largest private recycling operation of its kind in California, recently shut down 191 beverage container redemption depots, including 17 of 19 here in Sonoma County. More than 275 people lost their jobs.

Since 1987, California has required consumers to pay a nickel fee per bottle or can – a dime for containers 24 ounces or larger – for its “Redemption Value.” The problem is there is no guarantee that anyone will redeem them. The state has a convoluted system of compensating redemption centers for their efforts. Fees go into the “Redemption Program.” The redemption centers pay by the pound to redeem containers and in turn receive payment from the program. They also keep the money received for selling the glass and plastic to recyclers. The problem, according to rePlanet and others is that the state has reduced the amounts paid. Even worse, the price paid for plastic to recycle has plummeted. Falling oil prices have made new plastic cheaper than recycled. California also raided the redemption program fund, moving the money into the general fund, during the recent recession. One still has to pay the fee, but getting the money back has become much more difficult. It’s simpler to throw the containers into the curbside-recycling bin – and more efficient than driving miles to collect the refund. Will there be more roadside litter now that those who derived their income from picking up and redeeming the containers likely aren’t able to redeem them?

Oregon was the first state to require beverage-container deposit. Its famous bottle bill became law in 1972. The statute requires consumers to pay a deposit on beverage containers. (Oregon also was the first to ban cans with removable pull tabs.) Retailers are obliged collect the deposit and, unlike in California, accept the empties and refund the deposit.

Oregon required a five-cent deposit on every soft-drink and malt-beverage bottle and can. Five cents in 1972 is the equivalent of 28¢ today, or $1.68 for a six-pack. There is an exception: refillable bottles used by multiple bottlers require only a two-cent deposit. Western-brewed beers at the time typically came in 11-ounce, brown “stubby” bottles. For a brief time, most domestic beer sold in Oregon came in stubbies. Miller Brewing Company, an “Eastern” beer, soon changed its “High-Life” from the stubby to a twelve-ounce, non-refillable clear bottle with a five-cent deposit. It worked; people whose self-image is reinforced by the beer they drank, favored the distinctive container. Bottle shape and color is now a major part of the marketing of beverages.

Oregon still requires stores to redeem beverage containers. The law was revised so that retailers can participate in setting up redemption centers within a close proximity to stores. This relieves merchant from handling returns at the retail location.

Ten states and eight Canadian provinces require refundable deposits on certain beverage containers. Most have expanded the law to include bottled water and juices, sports drinks and teas.

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