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SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — Recycling in California will stay strong if officials enact a proposed overhaul to the state's beverage container recycling law, its authors said.

The proposal, commissioned by the state Department of Conservation, was made in a department report released April 23. It calls for retaining the 21/2-cent-per-container redemption value on beer and soft drink containers (5 cents on containers 24 ounces and larger), eliminating processing fees and convenience-zone recyclers, and retaining in modified form the balance of the program.

California's 1986 Assembly bill 2020, the equivalent to a bottle bill in other states, is a redemption system that eliminates the return of the containers through the retailers and manufacturers, instead sending them directly to recyclers.

The California system has been singled out in international circles as achieving its recycling goals at the least cost in the least amount of time, said James A. Gibson, a Sacramento consultant in charge of the study.

Department Director Elin D. Miller commissioned the study in August.

But the system is much more costly than it needs to be, Gibson said, mostly because of an array of complex regulations and a long chain of legislative reforms spawned by special interests seeking to reduce their payments into the program or increase their payments from the program.

The state has enacted 45 of the uncounted bills introduced through the years to amend the original law.

Miller ordered the study after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson signed yet-another such law at the end of the 1996 legislative session.

The present law operates from a fund supported by payments from manufacturers, which are reimbursed from the 21/2-cent-per-container fee charged consumers, who in turn are reimbursed when — and if — they redeem the containers at a recycling center.

Manufacturers of glass and plastic containers also pay a processing fee to supplement the inherent scrap value of the materials and make it economically feasible to recycle containers made of those materials.

And to promote redemption, large supermarkets must support convenience-zone redemption centers nearby — usually in their parking lots.

Gibson's plan would allow the convenience-zone recyclers to compete in the marketplace with traditional buy-back recyclers —and disappear if they cannot compete.

The proposal would replace processing with a recycling-dividend program in which recycling fees would be kept in separate funds for glass, plastic and aluminum. A surplus would occur in the fund for a material that is not being recycled, and that money could be added to the redemption value of the material as a dividend to spur recycling.

Along with the recycling dividend, recyclers will have the option of recycling or not recycling any material.

Present law requires them to accept glass, plastic and aluminum.

``As recycling rates for a container type drop, the recycling dividend increases,'' Gibson said. ``As the recycling rates increase, the dividend decreases, and only those recyclers who can economically recycle a container will promote its collection.

``Thus the system self-corrects to a market equilibrium for each container type,'' he said.