Cash in the Can: California's Recycling Run-Around

Californians pay a CRV deposit on every beverage bottle and can, but can't always get it back

What to Know

  • Californians pay CRV, a $0.05 or $0.10 deposit on every beverage container purchase, which can be redeemed at recycling centers
  • More than 1,000 California recycling centers have closed since 2013
  • Thousands of stores are required to pay back CRV on returned beverage containers, but NBC Bay Area found many are turning away recyclers

When San Ramon resident Uday Oak first reached out to NBC Bay Area, he was fed up with recycling.

"I had to dump over $20 of my containers into a Waste Management recycle box because there was nowhere to go and recycle," Oak said in an email. "This is atrocious. At least the state could have the decency to change the labels from CRV to mandatory TAXES for every bottle or can sold."

Uday's blunt message came just days after the shutdown of RePlanet, California's largest recycling center owner. The company's closure left 750 people without their jobs, and millions of Californians without an easy way to collect CRV.

California Refund Value, or CRV, is the five-cent or ten-cent deposit charged for every individual beverage bottle or can sold in the state. Each time you buy a soda, bottled water, beer, juice, or other beverage in an aluminum can, plastic bottle, or glass bottle, you pay CRV. You can get the deposit back by returning the container to an approved recycling center.

"It's essentially an I.O.U. when you buy all that stuff," Oak said. "That's how I see it."

Recycling Centers Shutting Down

The problem for Uday and many other Californians -- there are far fewer places paying CRV back than there were just six months ago.

Oak says he's been recycling and collecting CRV payments for about 20 years. But the only recycler in his neighborhood was a small RePlanet facility.

"It used to be here," Oak said, showing us the empty parking lot in front of a San Ramon grocery store. A faint outline of the kiosk remains, but there's otherwise no trace of the RePlanet stand.

It's left Oak and others like him with nowhere nearby to turn when they want to turn in recyclables for cash. Oak says no other business in the area will take his cans and bottles, and pay back CRV.

Oak says the state's recycling program management is partially to blame.

"You're basically robbing me in daylight, by saying you're going to give me this money back, and then turning around and saying, 'Sorry, we can't do that,'" Oak said.

Other viewers around the San Francisco Bay Area shared the same frustrations with us. The problem is steadily getting worse; since 2013, more than 1,000 recycling centers have shut down statewide. A variety of factors are weighing on recycling companies, particularly plummeting commodities prices and China's ban on recycling imports. Just last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure aimed at helping struggling recyclers stay afloat.

Stores Should Take Recyclables - But Do They?

The good news: state law provides a backstop -- thousands of stores. In areas with no nearby recycler, select retailers have a choice: pay the state a $100 per day fine to refuse recycling, or accept recyclable beverage containers and pay out CRV deposits.

Officials with CalRecycle, the state's recycling agency, told NBC Bay Area there are 404 stores paying the daily fine. The rest -- 3,958 grocery, big-box, and convenience stores -- are all required to accept your cans and bottles. The state lists those stores on its website.

But Oak says he hasn't had much luck going that route.

"You go to some stores, and they don't even know what you're talking about," Oak said.

To see for ourselves, the NBC Bay Area Responds team collected several dozen cans and bottles, then visited and called 100 Bay Area stores listed by the state as accepting recycling for CRV if they would cash in our recyclables.

We were turned down over, and over, and over again.

Of the 100 stores we checked, 67 said no. That's two-thirds of stores that turned away bottles and cans, even though all 100 were listed on the CalRecycle website as a place to take your recyclables and get CRV back.

Looking for answers, we started with convenience stores. James Allison, a spokesperson for the California Fuels and Convenience Alliance (CFCA), says recycling rules are challenging for smaller convenience stores.

"Gas stations simply don't have the capacity to be able to serve here," Allison said.

The CFCA represents hundreds of convenience stores and gas stations statewide. Allison says CFCA encourages stores to comply with the CRV law, but he says the 33-year-old statute shoehorned many mom-and-pop shops into a task they're not equipped to handle.

"What we really need to do is refine existing law a little bit," Allison said. "That way, it clarifies what stores really can and can't serve as recycling facilities."

What about larger stores? We were turned away with our recycling at Walmart, Safeway, and CVS, among others. One Walgreens location in the South Bay told us "no" in spite of a sign on its front door stating it would.

NBC Bay Area requested statements from every major store chain that turned us down. Only CVS responded. It said, "We are working... to ensure that all employees are aware of the CRV program protocol."

State Recycling Agency Seeks Solutions

Next, we turned to CalRecycle. It wouldn't tell us how many inspectors it has. So, we reviewed an agency staff list. We found ten employees listed under "inspections", plus 39 others listed under "investigations". We're not sure how many are assigned to policing the nearly 4,000 stores statewide that should be accepting recycling, but CalRecycle did tell us it doesn't have enough staff to constantly check all those locations. Nonetheless, CalRecycle said it's increasing inspections. The agency told us via email:

Since the beginning of August, CalRecycle has more than doubled our statewide inspections and enforcement efforts, conducting more than 1,500 beverage dealer inspections to ensure that retailers who choose to redeem CRV containers in store rather than pay $100 a day are fulfilling their legal obligations.

That extra enforcement is too late for a lot of people who've given up trying to get paid. CalRecycle data show redemptions have dropped to 76%. Put another way, only 3 out of every 4 beverage containers sold in California is being recycled and redeemed for CRV payment.

CRV collection is firm at 100%. CalRecycle says it collected $1.35 billion in CRV deposits last year, paying out $1.084 billion to recyclers. As for the remaining $265 million that wasn't paid out, the agency says those funds are being used to subsidize recycling companies -- who face sharply declining prices for recycled plastic and aluminum -- and on quality improvements, to make redemption easier.

Oak isn't satisfied with that answer. He's calling for the state to suspend collecting CRV until it works out a better way for recyclers to get paid.

"They've got to fix this," Oak said. "At least stop collecting something that you know you're not going to pay back, right? That's only fair."

In October, we asked Gov. Newsom's office whether a temporary CRV suspension is possible. On Friday, we received this statement from California Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfield, on behalf of Gov. Newsom:

“Californians should have access to recycling, and this administration is committed to working with all stakeholders to ensure there is a system in place to support and increase recycling. Through the budget and legislative processes, the state has invested $15 million to support recycling centers and redemption projects. But California must reduce our packaging footprint, shift consumer habits, and improve recycling systems to be responsive to current environmental and recycling market realities. We look forward to working with the Legislature to craft solutions that address challenges and meet our goals.

In relation to CRV it is important to note that a statute-directed program cannot be suspended.”

Recycling FAQs: Where to Exchange Your Bottles and Cans for Cash

Click here to find beverage container recycling centers near you.

Click here for a list of in-store CRV redemption locations in your county.

Can a CRV redemption location place limits on the number of cans / bottles I bring? CalRecycle tells us stores that accept recyclables are "not legally permitted to limit the amount of CRV empty beverage containers they accept... nor can they limit CRV redemptions based on material type."

What if a CRV redemption location only pays CRV in store credit or gift cards? CalRecycle says: "...consumers are entitled to the CRV value, not an in-store voucher or credit."

Can CRV redemption centers limit the hours during which they accept recyclables? Again, state law says no. Per CalRecycle: "The dealer [store] redeems all empty beverage container types at all open cash registers or one designated location on the dealer's premesis, during all hours that the dealer is open for business."

What can I do if a store on the CalRecycle list of CRV redemption locations refuses to accept my recyclables? You can report stores in violation of the CRV law to CalRecycle by sending your name, phone number, a summary of the problem, and the name and address of the store to . Further complaint filing details can be found here.

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