Governor Jerry Brown was wrapping-up his second term in 1982 when voters went to the polls and narrowly elected then-Attorney General George Deukmejian to be California’s 35th Governor. With 7.9 million ballots cast, Deukmejian narrowly defeated Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.  Deukmejian’s slim victory, only by a margin of 1%, is still considered one of the closest state-wide elections on record.

And while this gubernatorial electoral battle played out, voters more decisively rejected Proposition 11, known as the Beverage Container Reuse and Recycling Plan. Proposition 11, which would have established a five cent per can redemption fee on recyclable beverage containers sold in the state, failed 44% to 56%. This marked the first, yet unsuccessful step, in a long and important effort to reduce waste and enhance recycling within the State.

Despite this early setback, efforts to establish a beverage container recycling program continued. Within five years of Proposition 11 being defeated, Governor Deukmejian signed AB 2020, establishing a one cent redemption fee on beer, soda, and other recyclable containers. Since taking effect in 1987, California’s Redemption Value (CRV) program has grown and had a dramatic impact on recycling rates within California.  CRV deposits are currently 5 cents on containers which hold less than 24 ounces and 10 cents for larger beverage containers.

According to the State, the CRV recycling rate for aluminum cans was 61% in 1988, with glass bottles being recycled at a mere 4%.  These rates include beverage containers that were either returned by the purchaser for redemption or redeemed through another recycling program effort, such as commercial or curbside pick-up.  Since the implementation of AB 2020, California’s beverage container recycling rates have dramatically increased. The most recent annual report indicated that glass bottles are now being recycled at a rate of 85%, and the recycling rate for can has reached 100%.

While the 100% recycling rate for cans may seem like a cause for celebration, it’s not likely that every aluminum can purchased in California last year was recycled. So if not every one of the 8.5 billion cans sold in California last year was returned for its redemption value, how did we achieve a 100% rate?  Sadly, it’s really quite simple.

California is one of just several states that has a beverage container redemption program. As a result, unfortunately we see millions of cans, having never been charged a CRV deposit, making their way into our state. In short, the CRV program, designed to encourage Californians to recycle, is being taken advantage of and needs to be protected for the benefit of the State’s taxpayers, businesses, and consumers.

Part of the issue arises from the common practice of beverage containers being manufactured for use in multiple states.  Therefore, a can of soda purchased in Arizona where the deposit fee wasn’t collected still might contain the California CRV label and be eligible for five cents redemption in California. The redemption of such beverage containers is actualized by an observed increase in large illegal shipments of aluminum cans driven across the border into California.   This practice puts the millions of dollars paid by Californians as a deposit on their beverage containers at risk.  In recent years, the CRV fund has paid out over $100 million more than it has generated through beverage container deposits.

Thankfully, lawmakers in Sacramento have begun to address fraud within the CRV fund. State law now requires truck operators who are transporting more than 25 pounds of aluminum beverage containers into California to know and report the source of the materials. In a recent pilot program, more than 2,500 vehicles were reported to have been transporting aluminum cans into California. It is estimated that a large container truck is capable of transporting $20,000 – $30,000 in CRV materials.

Despite its challenges, the success of the CRV program is seen in the millions of pounds of material diverted from California landfills each year.  But more can and should be done to protect these funds.