When overwhelming demand closed Humboldt County's last California Refund Value redemption service at the Eureka Recycling Center last September, it left residents with few options to get their CRV deposits back. Under state law, it's now up to grocers and retailers to offer the service or face a $100 per day fee from the state, but finding a CRV in-store redemption service in Humboldt County has now become somewhat of a scavenger hunt.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) maintains a list of all the grocery stores and gas stations in each California county that offer CRV redemption services. Humboldt County's list contained 51 stores as the Journal went to press that are supposed to offer the service but some listed aren't accepting CRV at all, while others say they're still prepping to start the service. And many have set restrictions and limitations on the number of containers accepted and established limited CRV business hours.
For residents, the only real way of knowing which stores do, in fact, offer CRV redemption services is to call and ask whether they are accepting bottles and cans, and about the amount allowed. Safeway in Eureka, for example, limits redemptions to 50 clean bottles and cans for a maximum possible refund of $2.50 per day. And that's only when its CRV redemption services are open — Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
That isn't working for grocers and retailers, either, as they now must take on the responsibility of transporting CRV materials to market and refunding deposits to customers returning their containers, all on top of collecting point-of-sale CRV deposits for CalRecycle on the front end.
The burden has simply become too much for some. There are reports of gas stations in the area that began accepting CRV materials and returning deposits, but the demand was too high, and the gas stations became overwhelmed and found themselves hoarding more CRV material than they could transport to the nearest CRV recycling center, which is in Crescent City.
A gas station in Arcata the Journal contacted about accepting CRV materials asked not to be named in the article, with a manager saying she was worried about county residents swarming the business to redeem deposits. If demand becomes too high, she said, the business would just opt to pay the state's $100 per day compliance fee instead.
"It's unfortunate that small businesses have to take on the burden of taking CRV," Emily Manfredonia, the station's manager, said.
The same could apply to Eureka Natural Foods.
Graig Fillmore, the store's human resources administration officer, said ENF's Eureka store is preparing for in-store redemption services and is just waiting for answers from CalRecycle about exact rules of operating in-store CRV redemption service.
"We would really like to offer CRV services. We're all about recycling. But if demand gets too high, where we're backlogged [on CRV material] and the store isn't operational, we'll start paying the daily $100 fee," Fillmore said, adding that the health and safety of ENF employees comes first, noting that CRV crowds could complicate COVID-19 safety precautions.
Asked what Eureka Natural Foods plans to do with the CRV materials it collects, Fillmore said it plans to just put them into the business' curbside recycling bins to be collected by Recology, adding that transporting materials to Crescent City's Hambro Recycling Center or to a recycling market in Sacramento would add to the burdening costs. It's important to note that unlike CRV redemption centers and curbside haulers, grocery stores and retailers don't get subsidies from CalRecycle for operating in-store CRV recycling.
Manfredonia said the Arcata gas station will be taking CRV materials it collects to Hambro Recycling to recoup the CRV deposits taken out of its registers and given back to customers. But if there's too much material and that becomes burdensome, she said the station will put them in its curbside recycling bin.
Recology Eureka General Manager Linda Wise said the waste disposal company spends on average $850 to $1,500 per load to ship all recyclable materials (a portion of which are CRV) out of the area to market but costs all depend on where the materials are going and if Recology can take advantage of hauling efficiencies, like "haul backs" that allow the company to charge for hauling unrelated materials back to Humboldt County for other local businesses.
Recology Eureka, meanwhile, is still seeing more CRV materials coming into the curbside pickup stream with redemption centers closed and more people subscribing to curbside recycling in areas where it's not automatically included in garbage pick-up services.
Wise added that much of the CRV funds collected by Recology Eureka go directly back into subsidizing curbside rates but it's not as much as one might think.
"Recology puts any revenue we receive as far as curbside incentives toward curbside rates in our service areas, except for the case of Eureka," Wise said in an email to the Journal. "Eureka gets the payment and they put the funds toward recycling education and environmental projects. Curbside incentives do not amount to very much — usually $8,000 in Arcata (a year), for instance. "
Wise added that buybacks haven't been profi table for a long time, which is why all of Humboldt County's CRV redemption service centers have closed.
Humboldt Waste Management Authority Executive Director Jill Duffy has said before that HWMA was not receiving enough money from the CRV recycling market to make up for the low CalRecycle subsidies, so it offset the costs with a different service fee, which was the only way the CRV redemption center stayed open. The formulas simply didn't support CRV, so the center's closure was inevitable.
"Buybacks have not been fi nancially self-sustaining for a very long time or we would be seeing more crop up," Wise said. "Mostly, this is a result of the overuse of plastic single-use containers. They have a very, very low market value and their use creates less demand for aluminum, which drives that commodity lower, too."
Encouraging people to use reusable containers, clean their recyclables and stop buying single-use plastic would help, Wise said, but the solution to California's CRV crisis is at the legislative level.
There are currently a few bills that have been introduced in the California Legislature, including one by North Coast Assemblymember Jim Wood (Assembly Bill 1311) that would incorporate appointments into CRV service process. HWMA's Eureka Recycling Center had asked CalRecycle to allow appointments in an effort to navigate the high CRV demand that closed Broadway but was denied because the current law only allows walk-in service.
As Jeff Donlevy of Ming's Resources and Recycling told the Journal in January, the best way to fix the CRV crisis is to modernize the bottle bill formula, which is the same across the entire state and makes it hard for centers to make ends meet in rural areas. But a better solution may already be in play in Oregon and Michigan, where beverage manufacturers have more responsibility to making sure CRV cans and bottles are returned into the recycling stream.
And that's exactly what's written in California Senate Bill 38. Introduced by state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, the bill would result in "shifting more responsibility onto beverage distributors and increasing locations where consumers can return their containers" by July of 2024.
According to a press release from Wieckowski's office, "California now ranks third to last in redemption rates among bottle deposit states. Oregon, which has a stewardship model like the one S.B. 38 proposes, has a redemption rate of 86 percent and more locations to recycle, despite having just one-tenth the population of California."
In a March 11 HWMA board meeting, Duffy spoke positively about the bill.
"This is the one that actually has potential promise," she said, adding that it would probably be a bill that HWMA and "a lot of recyclers would end up supporting."
The following month, the board approved a motion to send out letters to Wood and North Coast State Sen. Mike McGuire asking them to support S.B. 38.
"HWMA supports amendments an overhaul to the Bottle Bill to restore CRV redemption opportunities to Humboldt residents," the letter states. "S.B. 38's Beverage Container introduced by SenatorWieckowski could bring necessary changes to California," the letter states.
Though many bills have been introduced, some with promising solutions, the legislative process can take months and, once something is passed, the implementation of the new law by CalRecycle, which will need to write regulations and requirements, could take another couple of years.
Until then, Humboldt County residents will still have little option of collecting their CRV and local grocers and retailers will be stuck between a burden and a fee. As such, the scavenger hunt will continue.