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EARTHWATCH : A Clear Sense of Purpose : Buying bottled goods, you pay for the right to recycle . . . and get the money back when you do.

January 31, 1991|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall. . . . Take one down, and pass it around . . . "

And what happens to the empties? Well, we pass them around too. The polite word for this is recycling. The real word is money. And early this month, the state launched another plan to help glass recyclers and manufacturers make more money. Without some kind of help, it wasn't worth their while to help us use up the glut of glass waste you and I produce every year.

It was different when I was a child. "During the war, we had scrap drives because of patriotism," my wife reminded me. "But now it's for money."

OK, times change. Combating the problems of bulging landfills and toxic seepage aren't as sexy as the job of defeating Hitler. And no one any longer can go through the romantic business of checking the bottoms of Coke bottles to see how far away they'd come from.

I'll bet there is at least one of you reading this who, as a kid, was as thrilled to find a Tampa bottle here on the Pacific Rim as I was to find a Ventura one on the gulf coast of Florida.

Empties are considered only money now. In '89, an empty California Redemption Value bottle was worth a penny. Then last year, two empties began to fetch a nickel, so redemption rates leaped upward from 40% to 60% of all the bottles sold in the state. The goal was to get to 80% by 1999.

But suddenly there was a "glass glut," and 6,000 tons ended up being thrown into landfills because there wasn't enough demand for the empties.

You and I have to pay a nickel for every two bottles we carry out of the store. We get it back if we take the empties to a "certified recycling center." We should keep on doing this, no matter what, because these bottles are no longer going into landfills due to some recent adjustments in state recycling programs. We can, of course, merely throw a bottle away or put it out on the curb in "separated" containers, thus losing a stream of nickels.

But once we're rid of a bottle, it becomes someone else's problem. And lately this someone else--the recycling companies and bottle manufacturers--have been stuck with an oversupply . . . and red ink.

By law, they have to buy back the stuff, shelling out nearly $90 a ton when, on the world market, it could be had for $60. That's why they refused to play last year and directed the stuff away to the landfill--thus defeating the purpose of the 1986 California bottle bill. Of course, they had excuses: "It's the wrong color glass." "It's contaminated by metal and cardboard." "We are closed today."

Right after New Year's Day, the California Department of Conservation set up a $20-million "market development fund to boost glass markets." It's a Rube Goldberg scheme whereby California glass manufacturers are dunned 6 cents for every 100 bottles they make.

That cash is held in Sacramento to be paid back to them when they've documented monthly that they used a higher amount of recycled cullet (used bottles) in their furnaces. That way, they can, according to state officials, make up their $30-per-ton shortfall.

Although many of the recyclers and glass manufacturers groaned about the paperwork they are going to have to go through in order to get their refunds, it seems to be no more troublesome than what you and I go through as consumers who recycle. We're all in this together anyway. I have a few tips to pass along to consumers from the recyclers and the manufacturers, which will help smooth the process.

Bottles come in three colors--clear, brown and green (or flint, amber and green). Manufacturers in El Monte and Pomona said, "Keep that flint rolling in"--clear glass is what they need the most of, to supply local bottlers. Californians are into designer water and white wine, which are bottled in clear glass. Brown beer bottles are used only by importers, so there's no local demand for scrap brown glass. And green bottles can only be recycled at one place in the state. I'm a bit of a California patriot, and if you are too, buy products in clear glass bottles and recycle the glass.

FYI

For the Ventura County Certified Recycling Center, call (800) SAVE plus your ZIP code. They'll tell you the bottle-recycling site nearest you. For further information, call Ventura County Regional Sanitation District, 658-4632.

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