CALIF. RECYCLING PROGRAM MAY FACE CHANGES

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California could see major changes in its bottle recycling program soon, with state government and industry pushing to make it less ``command and control,'' and environmentalists scrambling to add popular new noncarbonated beverage containers to the mix.

Key parts of the complex program are set to expire next year, opening up what lobbyists and officials on all sides of the debate say is a chance to bring parties to the table and move legislation in the state Assembly this year.

California's program — which advocates tout as among the most successful in the country — also is among the most complicated. Besides a refundable deposit provision, state officials must estimate the average cost of recycling and the average value of scrap and require manufacturers to make up some of the difference with a processing fee.

California recycled 76 percent of its beverage containers in 1996, led by aluminum at 80 percent, glass at 69 percent, plastic at 59 percent and bimetal cans at 17 percent.

But Plastics Recycling Corp. of California, an industry coalition that essentially taxes its members in lieu of a processing fee, wants to lower the processing fees and move toward a more market-based system, said Ralph Simoni, a government affairs consultant for Sonoma, Calif.-based PRCC.

Last year PRCC members, who produce the containers, paid about $20 million to support recycling.

State government should not be in the business of setting rates or telling recycling centers what materials to take because government is less-efficient than the market, Simoni said. The state, for example, paid companies about 22 cents per container five years ago to sort and make them market-ready, but PRCC members have whittled that to 7.5 cents by administering the program internally, he said.

``Should the state attempt to go out with a clipboard and stopwatch to determine the cost of collecting, or should the marketplace decide it?'' he said.

The state Department of Conservation wants the program to be market-based and have recycling rates that more closely reflect the market value of the material, although state officials do not have any ``preconceived notions'' and want to encourage debate, said Jason Marshall, assistant director for government and environmental affairs at the DOC.

State officials last month released a report that suggested retaining the refundable deposits but eliminating the processing centers and subsidized recycling centers located near grocery stores. Each station gets a subsidy of about $2,000 per month, Marshall said.

But the state's legislation so far has not had enough support to get out of the Democrat-controlled Senate Natural Resources Committee, said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a Sacramento-based environmental group.

CAW opposes the legislation, but unlike state officials, has been able to get its own bottle bill expansion legislation out of its first policy committee, Murray said. That bill would put noncarbonated beverage containers such as juices, sports drinks, teas and water into the deposit program, imposing the same 2.5-5 cent-per-container fee that other beverages have.

That amounts to about 2 billion more containers a year, or a 15 percent increase, in cans and bottles the fee could be collected from, Murray said.

The noncarbonated containers can be recycled now, but deposits are not collected, Simoni said.

Ultimately, the legislative wrangling will require all the interest groups to compromise, Murray said. Environmentalists will get some expansion of the bottle bill and the industry will get caps on the processing fees they must contribute, he predicted.