Los Angeles, CA, December 7, 2020 — Between July and September of 2020, the rate of consumer redemption of empty beverage containers fell another two percentage points to 58%, according to beverage sales data from CalRecycle, the state’s overseer of the bottle deposit program.

That means 42% of annual consumer bottle deposits—or about $546 million paid through September this year—is not being returned to consumers who could really use that money, according to Consumer Watchdog.

California now comes in at third to last in terms of redemption rates out of a list of ten states with such programs. Those redemption rates are as follows: Michigan, 89%; Oregon, 86%; Maine, 84% (2017); Iowa, 71%; Vermont, 71%; New York, 64%; Hawaii, 62%; Connecticut, 50%; Massachusetts, 50%.

“This is nickels and dimes that all consumers pay to the state to recycle beverage empties and they have a right to get it refunded,” said Liza Tucker, consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog.  “But they can’t because redemption centers are folding and retail chains that sell beverages shirk their responsibility to take empties back. The system is collapsing and we need leadership.

“The only way to fix this program is to start over and put the responsibility for running it onto the beverage industry, including the sellers of beverages, to create convenient ways for consumers to redeem their money. Governor Newsom has a duty to make fixing California’s broken recycling program a top priority.”

All bottle deposit programs run on a cushion of unredeemed deposits, but nowhere near the mountain that CalRecycle has built up. The more deposits that consumers do not redeem, and the more centers that process fewer containers for which the state pays, the more money builds up at CalRecycle. According to CalRecycle data, the amount of funds at CalRecycle has grown by $125 million since July of 2019. The fund now totals up to half a billion dollars.

Speaking at an Assembly hearing last month, a top CalRecycle regulator said that the onset of the pandemic knocked the 76% recycling rate—which includes containers recycled by waste haulers and other salvagers in addition to consumers—down to 47% in March when an executive order to stay home went into effect. The rate then slowly rebounded, hitting 67% for the first eight months of 2020. The bottle program’s recycling rate hit a high of 85% in 2013 and has been falling ever since.