California is one of nine states that place a redemption value on plastic and aluminum drink containers.
We all assume that this means all, if not a vast majority, of such containers are recycled into new containers and such. Guess again.
Scrap aluminum can prices are plunging as they’ve dropped 30 percent since last summer. It is creating a glut compounded by two things: Domestic aluminum rolling mills are paid a $1 a pound above market value to create aluminum sheets of high enough quality for use on auto bodies that car manufacturers do not like being made out of recycled cans. More and more new cans for beverages are being used from imported aluminum milled as can sheets due to the shift in domestic milling of aluminum for more profitable clients such as auto firms. Add to that the placement by China of a 50 percent tariff on aluminum scrap from United States and the domestic stockpiles of shredded aluminum from junked cars as well at the stockpile of discard cans keeps growing.
The New York Times reported this week that a growing number of cities are simply burying recyclables because of the global gut created when China, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and now India decided to no longer accept the high level of contamination — read that garbage and trash — Americans have been tossing into recycling carts.
As the market for recycled aluminum dives it creates a problem for third parties that now can’t sell the cans for as much as they once did and have to rely on the CRV process to keep things going.
At the same time the state’s CRV system has its problems.
Besides out-of-state operators that collect aluminum cans in states that have no CRV programs and game the system by illegally trucking them to California redemption centers where they can collect a nickel a can that mounts up when you are do so by the truckload, a report last month noted there are fewer and fewer “neighborhood” drop off points for consumers to retrieve a nickel per container for CRV plastic bottles and aluminum cans. This has a lot to do with the economics of running a CRV collection business that is also struggling with rising minimum wages.
If the objective is to reduce what is buried at the landfill, to get people more actively involved in recycling, and to not litter the earth with manufactured containers that nature over the years would struggle to break down, then maybe it’s time to either go back to glass bottles exclusively or put in place a hybrid system.
Back when there was a nickel deposit on every soda bottle consumers for the most part returned bottles to stores so they could avoid paying 30 cents on their next six-pack of soda.
Technology has changed enough that water can be recycled more effectively at bottling firms that need to wash and disinfect returned bottles. If new car washes can recycle more than 98 percent of the water they use it shouldn’t be that big of a challenge to come up with a similar process for beverage bottles.
But instead of charging 5 cents a bottle, the deposit should be jacked up to $1 a bottle. If you remember to bring back the bottles each time you go to the store you avoid paying $6 on top of the price of a cartoon of six glass beverages. It could also lead to a rebirth of glass bottles for milk.
If you are a faithful recycler and treat bottles with care you will essentially be spending the same $1 per bottle over and over again. In other words, the only additional outlay you would have is for the initial bottle deposit as long as you keep returning them.
A similar strategy could work for food items that could also be packaged in glass such as Costco does with its Kirkland brand peaches.
The selling of beverages in plastic and aluminum would not be prohibited but they would carry a $1 per bottle surcharge in addition to the current CRV charge.
That extra dollar per plastic container for beverages would be paid by the company that sells the product in the form of a fee that would go toward underwriting municipal recycling operations on a per capita basis.
It sounds a bit draconian and reeks of big government. There’s no doubt about it. But it is harsh enough to force a change in the behavior of the end users that will lead to items being re-used without robbing them of the option to purchase beverages in plastic or aluminum cans if they so desire as long as the fork over an additional dollar that they won’t see again whenever they buy bottled water, bottled soda or bottled sports drinks.
Rest assured if someone tosses a glass soda bottle worth a dollar on the side of the road or discards it in a trash can someone — and not just homeless scavengers — will retrieve it and take it to the closest store that sells the particular brand of beverage that was in the bottle they collected. A nickel is chump change for most while a dollar gets our attention.
It would also reduce the odds of people tossing out beverage containers into black carts or even the blue carts that the homeless pilferage through on a regular basis. It may have unexpected side effects such as reducing homeless-related issues as households that consume 20 bottles of various beverages in glass containers a week would not likely throw away $20. Instead they would likely dutifully return them for a 100 percent credit toward the next bottle deposit when buying replacement beverages.
The goal we should be pursuing first and foremost is “reusing” containers and not just “recycling.” It is clear there are endless pitfalls with recycling of which human behavior is the most egregious.
The use of glass will create the need for more labor but having dollar deposits recovered at the point of sale, whether they are the likes of Food-4-Less, Walmart, Target, Costco, convenience stores or liquor stores, will assure much better compliance than a standalone redemption centers that you have to go out of the way to find one near your home, providing you can, to retrieve a nickel.
As an added bonus besides being much more durable, glass doesn’t have potential leeching issues of toxins that some studies have suggested thin plastic bottles and aluminum cans do. Beverages in glass also are colder when they are refrigerated compared to plastics and aluminum containers.
You also never have to worry about market demand for recyclables changing or lazy people contaminating the collection of household recyclables because they toss garbage and trash into blue carts.