California is looking next door to Oregon for how it can fix its container recycling system, potentially shifting toward one that would put the onus on the bottling industry to design and operate.
The state Senate Jan. 15 took up a proposal to overhaul California's complicated system, which has seen hundreds of local recycling centers close in the last year from financial problems, and move toward an industry-run model like that in Oregon and some other states and countries.
While it's a very complex debate, the legislation from state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, broadly aims to keep the deposit system, including for PET bottles, but revamp it to raise recycling rates and make it more financially stable.
Wieckowski and others said a better system could raise bottle recycling rates into the 80 or 90 percent-plus range seen in places like Oregon, Michigan, Germany and Norway. In 2018, California had a 76 percent container recycling rate within its bottle bill program, according to state figures.
Supporters of the overhaul also argue that California could make its system stronger financially if industry is responsible for operating it, with the state monitoring compliance and progress. The legislation would task an industry group with designing a system by April 2021.
"Zero cost to taxpayers, this is the future," Wieckowski said at a Jan. 15 hearing in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. "This is government saying to private industry, you guys run it, you're the best at it.
"It's modeled quite a bit on the Oregon program," he said, going on to describe a system that he envisions would also use technology to make the system more efficient and innovative, like smartphone apps to create accounts for consumers to use when returning bottles.
Wieckowski's legislation is closely tied into California's broader debate around single-use packaging and plastics, particularly in tough legislation that nearly passed the Legislature last year and would have required single-use packaging to have a 75 percent recycling rate by 2030 to be sold in the state.
That measure, known as Senate Bill 54, is currently in intense negotiations to win enough support to pass this year, according to the bill's lead author, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Redondo Beach. He's also chairman of the environmental committee.
"We've been having intense conversations with the glass folks, with the distributors, with the grocers, consumer groups, cities, the producers, manufacturers," Allen said. "We've been working very hard to get a deal together and we're coming very, very close."