Orange County residents are losing millions in unclaimed recycling money as it becomes more difficult to redeem cans and bottles, according to a new grand jury report that examined a dwindling number of recycling centers across the county.
The recycling fees, known as California Redemption Value, are placed on plastic, glass and aluminum bottles or cans when purchased in California. The state has a five-cent fee for beverage containers less than 24 ounces and 10 cents for containers 24 ounces or greater.
Consumers are able to make this money back by bringing eligible cans and bottles to any certified recycling center – oftentimes found near grocery stores.
However, the number of recycling centers in California have shrunk dramatically over the past 10 years.
Since 2013, more than 1,000 recycling centers have closed across the state, leaving 1,256 in California and 109 in Orange County. Currently, there is one recycling center for every 26,000 residents in the state, OC Grand Jurors found.
The panel found that the shrinking number of convenient recycling sites has caused a dramatic loss of funds for consumers who struggle to claw back their fees.
The recycling centers are a way for many people to make some extra money by cashing in bottles and cans.
It’s also a way for many homeless people throughout OC to earn some money.
Mike Robbins, a homelessness advocate with People’s Homeless Task Force, said recycling centers need to be readily accessible for people on the street trying to make some cash collecting bottles and cans.
Especially when they may not have access to a car to drive several miles to the nearest redemption center.
“[Homeless people] need more recycle centers,” Robbins said. “They should be more available — on every street corner.”
Robbins also said he thinks the recycling fees should be increased to encourage more people to recycle and to help homeless people generate more extra money from collecting cans and bottles.
Redemption programs are managed by California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) — which provides oversight for all of California’s state-managed non-hazardous waste handling and recycling programs.
Lance Klug, a CalRecycle spokesman, said the organization has pilot programs that create increased access to recycling and fee redemption opportunities.
Irvine is one of five California cities — and the only in OC — to participate in a CalRecycle pilot program.
Klug also pointed to a state-wide $330 million plan to expand redemption access and encourage recycling. State legislators have approved the funding as part of this year’s budget, but have yet to allocate the money.
This money comes directly from California’s unclaimed recycling funds.
“That money doesn’t go anywhere until legislature directs it to go anywhere,” Klug said.
The initial plan budget would designate $55 million to boost redemption returns in underserved communities and $100 million to double recycling funds for consumers, he said.
Another $100 million would add 2,000 reverse vending machines — a machine that allows a person to insert bottles and cans in exchange for recycling funds — to schools and retailers.
The lack of redemption centers has increased unclaimed deposits held by CalRecycle to more than $600 million statewide, according to the Grand Jury report.
The Grand Jury report also found that while residents are losing money, waste haulers aren’t.
When consumers put their plastic, aluminum and glass containers in their recycling bins on their curbs, local residents’ potential line of recycling cash goes instead to the companies emptying their garbage cans from the curb.
In 2020, California waste haulers were paid $146 million for consumer recycling fees donated to them at curbside and rural drop off locations, the panel found.
OC Grand Jurors also detail how CalRecycle has opened opportunities for cities to improve recycling fee redemption access.
Yet OC cities aren’t taking advantage, according to the report.
The report claims that most OC cities do not make recycling fee redemption and recycling a priority, leaving missed opportunities and less convenience.
Paul Eakins, spokesman for Santa Ana, said that although the city has a great variety of recycling programs, he has not heard of any specific initiatives to help residents claim recycling funds besides the city’s 22 certified redemption centers.
In turn, Grand Jurors suggest cities research and implement programs that focus on increasing the availability and accessibility for residents to redeem recycling funds locally.
The panel’s report says Grand Jurors surveyed all 34 OC cities to evaluate efforts to help residents obtain their recycling refunds.
“Over 40% of the 14 cities that responded to the OCGJ survey failed to offer an organized program for public outreach and education regarding recycling redemption and recycling,” the report said. “Many relied on their waste haulers to make recycling available and to educate their community.”
The report described a few of the city’s responses in more detail. Some cities have increased ways residents can recoup their recycling fees, while others use the recycling money to bolster a variety of other funds.
Brea responded by saying the city had applied for CalRecycle Beverage Container Recycling grants in an attempt to purchase new recycling containers across the city and at schools, although nearly all OC cities apply for this kind of grant.
Laguna Beach officials told grand jurors the city has a “windfall recycling payment clause” in their waste hauler contract. The clause explains that the contractor will pay Laguna Beach approximately 25% of recycling revenue, the report said.
Fountain Valley has a similar recycling revenue sharing program that requires the waste haulers to share the funds with the city, the report said.
Additionally, San Juan Capistrano reported to the grand jury that it has a recycling fundraising program for local schools. Waste haulers in the city offer containers to collect recycling from students and families. When these containers are filled, the contractor is required to provide the redemption value to the school as a fundraising source.
“The OCGJ applauds the efforts by these cities to benefit their citizenry and increase material recycling,” the report said.
The city of Irvine is currently operating a Recycle from Home grant pilot program through CalRecycle that focuses on creating convenient opportunities for residents to redeem recycling funds, since there are few certified recycling centers in the city.
In Irvine, residents are able to separate their recyclable-eligible items in bags and leave them outside their front door, where they are picked up and delivered to a recycling facility. The residents then receive their recycling funds via direct deposit, minus a 10% fee that goes to operating costs.
Irvine is the only OC city operating this kind of program, and the jury emphasized in its report that other cities should follow suit.
“A yearlong investigation of the California bottle deposit program found that the system could collapse without fundamental reform and that best practices are not being used,” the report reads. “Currently, redemption centers in Orange County are few and far between and have been closing at an alarming rate.”
In California, the state manages and holds all unclaimed recycling fees, which are piling up as time goes on. This money is held by CalRecycle until directed by state legislators to spend it, typically on recycling initiatives, Klug said.
Statewide, Californians pay over $1.4 billion in recycling fees each year.
In 2021, there were 27.4 billion containers sold and 18.5 billion recycled in California — a 68% recycling rate. This number has decreased each year since 2018, when 78% of containers sold were recycled.
The amount of redemption centers have been diminishing over the past 10 years, and the problem was only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said.
The grand jury is requesting responses within 90 days from the OC Board of Supervisors, OC waste and recycling and 16 OC cities regarding its findings and recommendations.
Read the report’s full findings here.
This article has been updated to clarify that legislators have yet to allocate the money in the state’s $330 million recycling program.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.