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CalRecycle crackdown: CVS fined $3.6 million for not recycling bottles and cans

The 'historically large fine' is good news to consumers, and could mean big changes for California's bottle bill recycling program.

CALIFORNIA, USA — The California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery, otherwise known as CalRecycle, has fined CVS Health Corporation a record $3.6 million for failing to recycle bottles and cans at in-store locations. The company refused to redeem deposits on bottles and cans or pay the alternative $100 daily fee at 81 of its 848 California stores. 

"The violations include refusing to redeem CRV beverage containers in store, failing to pay the required $100 a day fee for not redeeming, or failing to submit an affidavit to CalRecycle stating how they would comply with in-store redemption standards," Lance Klug, Public Information Officer for CalRecycle, said. 

CalRecycle announced the enforcement action on Monday, Dec. 9, following an investigation into the pharmacy chain. According to CalRecycle's press release, the action is part of a broader state effort to support the recycling industry. As such, it sends a message to retailers that they will be held accountable.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
Close Up Of Woman Carrying Recycling Bin

California's bottle bill works like this: consumers pay a California Redemption Value [CRV] when they buy a bottle or can, then that money is returned to consumers when they recycle their container at a recycling center or in-store redemption retailer. For retailers who do not qualify for an exemption, they must either redeem beverage containers or pay a fine of $100 dollars on a daily basis.

California's CRV beverage container recycling program has been somewhat plagued by issues. Retailers and small businesses undertake the costs and labor associated with recycling bottle and cans. 

At the same time, according to a report by Liz Tucker, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, "For every nickel bottle deposit that California consumers pay in the checkout line, they only get back 2.65 cents."

A past critic of CalRecycle's bottle and can recycling system, Consumer Watchdog praised the enforcement action, stating that the state agency "means business" with this fine.

Tucker states retailers bank on the fact that they can take the option to redeem CRV containers so that they won't have to pay fines, then refuse to collect them without being caught. Ultimately, it's the consumers who pay for the bottle or can without reaping the reward who are hurt when those containers are not recycled. 

"[Retailers] sign up and then hope they're not going to get caught, think that they're not going to get caught," Tucker said. "And they've been right because CalRecycle doesn't do any enforcement. This sends the signal that CalRecycle may be just stepping that up, in which case, they better start honoring the obligation."

Tucker explained CVS Pharmacy is not the only California retailer to skirt the rules. In an audit completed by Consumer Watchdog and Tucker, there were many stores in the Los Angeles area that refused to redeem CRV beverage containers. 

"We went to 50 different stores throughout the Los Angeles area, and CVS did redeem our bottle," Tucker said. "Based on our sample of course, […] I can tell you for sure that CVS is by far not the worst perpetrator of turning people away from their redemption by a long shot. So, to me, it looked odd that they started with CVS."

Credit: AP
Recycling center in Sacramento, California

For why CalRecycle fined CVS in particular, Tucker could not say, but she points to other ways that this action is significant

"This should be the first of many fines to come because they haven't been enforcing," Tucker said. "CalRecycle has not been enforcing the bottle law for decades, and this is a first. It's a historically large fine for this particular problem."

Klug says CalRecycle is looking to make bottle and can recycling more accessible by taking action against retailers that won't comply. 

To make it more difficult for consumers to redeem money for bottles and cans, California has lost a number of recycling centers in the last few months. California’s largest operator of recycling redemption centers, RePlanet, shut down and laid off 750 employees just this summer. Among counties in California that have lost the greatest number of recycling centers, Sacramento has one of the highest percentages of change, going from 132 centers in 2012 to just 55 in 2017.

"CalRecycle has taken the sudden lack in convenient places to redeem CRV seriously and has been treating the situation as serious since the state’s largest recycling center company closed in August," Klug said. "Our actions have always been and continue to be focused on supporting Californians to protect the environment by recycling."

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