LOS ANGELES -- California has begun a complex system designed to recycle beverage containers and determine whether manufacturers, retailers and environmentalists can find common ground after years of political warfare over America's mounting garbage glut.
The compromise recycling law, which will require at least 1,700 new collection centers statewide, offers the only new alternative to the conventional deposit system in nine other states in which each container is redeemable for a nickel.
District of Columbia voters are being asked to vote Nov. 3 on the deposit system.
While California activists on both sides of the bottle-bill issue seem eager to make the new system work, Jonathan Puth, director of the Bottle Bill Initiative Campaign in the District, said the state's approach would not work in Washington.
That is because the California plan fails to focus on small retailers and gives consumers a much smaller refund, Puth said. Its complicated provisions make it "difficult to enforce the law, and it requires a large administrative staff," he said.
Michael Paparian, California state director of the Sierra Club and a longtime supporter of bottle bills, said "we are pretty pleased so far" with the new law which went into effect Oct. 1.
He was one of several environmentalists who supported the compromise measure by Assembly member Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) after a conventional bottle bill failed repeatedly in the legislature. A California ballot initiative similar to next month's Initiative 28 in the District was defeated in 1982, 56 to 44 percent.
The new California law initially requires the distributor to pay the state 1 cent per can or bottle it plans to sell in the state. The consumer will take empties to a recycling center, which will pay 1 cent plus scrap value for each empty. The recycler may then recover each 1-cent payment from the state.
For the first time, it also forces manufacturers to pay an extra "processing fee" to the state if it is determined that a particular container cannot be recycled profitably.
"That is a radical notion, a revolutionary departure, not just from traditional beverage marketing practices, but from the entire structure of our throw-away economy," said Bill Shireman, executive director of Californians Against Waste. The 35,000-member lobbying group sponsored the unsuccessful 1982 bottle-bill initiative.
Like most environmentalists here, Shireman applauds the conventional bottle laws in effect in Oregon, Massachusetts, Iowa, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, Delaware and Michigan and proposed for the District. But the California law, known by its legislative number, AB 2020, "represents, I suspect, the beginning of a second wave of recycling laws that will be much more broadly effective than even bottle bills have been," he said.
The new law here and the District initiative grow out of the same concerns -- unsightly trash on streets and highways and a critical shortage of space for municipal solid waste. One recent survey reported that at least 27 states will face landfill shortages in the next 10 years. About one-quarter of major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, are expected to use up their current landfills in the next five years.
Although beverage containers make only a small contribution to the total landfill problem, the 12 billion cans and bottles Californians discard each year offer an enormous opportunity to the recycling industry, environmentalists here argue.
Advocates of the new law say the traditional bottle bills have succeeded in getting discarded containers out of park meadows and street gutters, but many are still dumped in landfills rather than recycled. In other states, California Glass Recycling Corp. President Lee Wiegandt said, "once they are collected, that is where the law stops."
State conservation department Director Randall M. Ward hailed California's new "checks and balances and carrot and stick incentives" that "motivate industry to support recycling."
The law eases the burden on retailers by requiring that recycling collection centers be only within a half mile of major supermarkets, defined as those that do more than $2 million in business annually. Such a requirement is feasible in a state with so many automobiles but a burden, Puth said, on elderly people who use buses.
Major recycling companies, some with reverse vending machines and some with regularly staffed parking lot collection points, have signed contracts with supermarket chains.
David Little, vice president of 20/20 Recycling Centers, said his company plans to provide color-coded fiberglass igloos to keep aluminum, plastic and glass materials separate and a container for newspapers, which are not covered by the new law.
The state has identified 2,743 supermarkets big enough to need collection centers. Since some are located within a half mile of each other, a minimum of 1,700 collection points will be necessary. If a designated zone does not have a collection point by Jan. 1, all retailers in the zone will be required to take back containers or pay a $100 daily fine until a center is established.
The state began collecting a 1-cent per container fee from distributors Sept. 1, and some anticipate that that cost will be passed onto consumers. The collection centers are required to pay consumers 1 cent, plus scrap value, for every aluminum, glass, plastic or other metal beverage container bearing a special "CA Redemption Value" label. Processors may reclaim the penny from the state for each container they recycle.
If the recycling rate for a certain kind of container does not reach 65 percent by Dec. 31, 1989, the redemption rate will go to 2 cents per container, and to 3 cents if that level is not reached by Dec. 31, 1992.
State recycling division spokeswoman Mercedes Azar said the system will require 100 new state employes and as much as $9 million in annual adminstrative costs. She said the money will come from that portion of the annual $120 million in distributor fees that is not paid out because not all containers were recycled.