For most people, tossing cans and bottles into the recycling bin marks the last time they’ll ever think about them.

But for many others – including a San Jose program for high-school drop-outs – that trip to the recycling bin is just the beginning.

Jocelyn Serna, 18, graduated from the San Jose Conservation Corps Charter School on January 24th, the first in her family to receive a high school diploma. (Francesca Segre/KQED)
Jocelyn Serna, 18, graduated from the San Jose Conservation Corps Charter School on January 24th. (Francesca Segre/KQED)

Earlier this month, the San Jose Conservation Corps Charter School held its winter graduation at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

Jocelyn Serna, 18, became the first person in her family to receive a high school diploma.

“Everything I’m doing, everything is for the high school she’s finishing today,” said her mother, Michel Sanchez. “I’m happy. Very, very happy.”

Bob Hennessey, a former Catholic priest, founded the charter school program in 1987. He said it’s designed to meet the needs of primarily young adults who have dropped out of high school.

“Some dropped out in seventh grade, some at tenth,” Hennessey said. “Some were asked to leave. So without giving any thought to what their lives have been, we’re there to help them change their lives now.”

Now what, you may be asking, does a conservation corps charter school have to do with recycling? There’s a simple, three letter answer to that: CRV.

CRV stands for the California Redemption Value. CRV is why you pay an extra five cents every time you buy a can of Coke, or ten cents for that big bottle of Gatorade.

Under the CRV program, you can have that nickel or dime back if you take the can to a certified recycling center.

Alternatively, you can let someone else do it for you. For example, a recycling company will pick up bottles and cans at the curbside, funding its operations through the CRV value, plus whatever the material is worth on the scrap market.

In many cities, scavengers beat them to it, digging cans and bottles out of recycling bins in order to collect the CRV deposit, although this practice is illegal.

But if no one collects that nickel (maybe because the bottle goes into the landfill, or breaks) it goes into a giant pot of nickels and dimes overseen by the state, amounting to $1.1 billion.

That money funds recycling outreach, community grants and local Conservation Corps, including the one in San Jose.

“The bottle bill was what started the local Corps,” said Bob Hennessey. “Fourteen of us [local Conservation Corps] depend on the bottle bill as base funding.”

But the state’s fund is running out of money. Recycling rates are high these days, largely because in a tough economy, more people want their nickels back.

This crisis has led the state to pursue several changes to the recycling program. Most of these changes will be imperceptible to the average consumer, but they hit California’s poorer citizens much harder.

Under next year’s budget, Governor Brown proposes to stop funding the local Conservation Corps out of the bottle fund. According to the plan, groups like Hennessey’s would draw from alternate streams, such as the state’s electronic-waste recycling program, or used-oil programs.

But Hennessey fears the new funding streams won’t materialize, or will be insufficient to cover the $6 million his organization depends on annually to run its charter school, vocational training and other programs.

Meanwhile, two new laws target recycling fraud. One takes aim at recycling importers, who bring in bottles and cans from out of state in order to take advantage of California’s relatively generous CRV program.

Another addresses a practice known as “comingling,” in which recycling centers are permitted to reimburse customers by weight, rather than counting each CRV container separately.

Comingling saves time, but over-compensates recyclers by reimbursing them for containers that are not included in the CRV program, such as liquor or milk bottles.

Mark Murray, head of the Sacramento-based non-profit Californians Against Waste, said some of these changes are necessary to address the shortfall in the state’s recycling fund and make the program more efficient.

But there’s another change he’d like to see as well, one that would simplify the recycling  process, raise recycling rates and help the state’s bottom line: adding wine and liquor bottles to the beverage container recycling law.

In California, beer bottles do carry a deposit, but liquor and wine bottles don't. (James Cridland/Flickr)
In California, beer bottles do carry a deposit, but liquor and wine bottles don’t. (James Cridland/Flickr)

“I think most folks assume that the CRV program covers all beverages,” said Murray. “They’re surprised when they find out that wine and liquor are exempt.”

Murray estimates that 800 million glass wine and liquor bottles are generated in the state. Wine bottles, which make up the bulk of that number, have what he calls a “dismal” recycling rate: somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 percent.

Part of that rate is the nature of glass. Many wine bottles tossed into recycling bins won’t survive the trip. Broken glass is much harder to recycle than intact bottles, and often ends up in landfills.

Adding a deposit, said Murray, would give recyclers an incentive to do a better job.

And any uncollected deposits would plump up the state fund by $20 million or more a year, he says.

“We can both close a funding shortfall and double the recycling rate by adding these currently exempt containers to the recycling program,” Murray said.

Tim Shmelzer is a director of the Wine Institute, which represents California wine makers. He disagrees such changes are necessary to drive recycling rates up.

“We believe we’re past the age where we need to provide a financial incentive for people to do that,” he said.

Shmelzer said the industry is proud of the recycling rate for wine bottles, though he declined to provide a figure for what that rate might be.

“I don’t have a comment on that particular number,” Shmelzer said. “Like I said, we believe wine bottles are already being recycled at a high rate right now.”

Murray and Hennessey said they’ve tried for years to convince legislators to add wine and liquor bottles to the program, but lobbyists from those industries have blocked the effort.

This winter, the duo said they’ll be back in Sacramento, trying again.

  • KMFN

    In 2011 California produced over 347 million cases of wine, yet none of those bottles are reusable, as they are in Europe, and an estimated 70% end up in land fills. That’s approximately 2.9 billion bottles that weren’t recycled. The reason those bottles aren’t reusable is primarily due to pressure sensitive ice proof labels. Try removing a label and you’ll soon understand they aren’t intended to be removed. As a result the wine industry isn’t as “green” as it could be, and they know it.

  • Theresa Morrissey Alster

    This is a great idea. It is about time we take a necessary step to keep wine and liquor bottles out of landfills. It is a simple act for the wine and liquor industries that would help numerous young people through the conservation corps to gain work training and education.

  • Scott Curtis

    It’s common sense for the state to collect CRV tax for wine and liquor bottles. This would not only be environmentally sound, it would also help to ensure that many more thousands of students like Jocelyn Serna will have the opportunity to earn their high school diploma in the future.

  • Denver Velasquez

    It makes so much sense to add the CRV on wine and liquor bottles to incentivize their recycling and to help sustain vital programs like the Conservation Corps.

  • Alvaro Morales

    I believe all 50 US States should have a strong uniform Bottle Bill that also included wine and distilled drink containers. The reduction in sending solid waste to our landfills and increases in vocational training funding sources would help increase the standard of living to us all.

  • Kendra Ann Madsen

    Why would you just stop with wine and liquor bottles? The tax should apply onto milk plastic containers, or bottles. The same should be done for juices that come in the plastic bottles, not all juice containers have a CRV on them. If anything if you are green anything that comes in either glass or plastic should be taxed with the CRV

  • Melanie Kimbel

    Wine is a part of our California heritage. I am proud of this. By paying a CRV every time I purchase a bottle of wine (which is often), I will be contributing to the protection of our precious natural resources and improving the quality of life for our human and non-human residents.

    • sam duran

      I totally agree with Melanie, this is a win-win for all of the citizens of California. Let your Elected Officials in Sacramento know that we will join them to protect our natural resources and save young peoples lives.

  • travis

    there is no reason why these containers should be exempt. and if it can increase the vocational training funding sources simultaneously it is a win-win. all for it.

  • Mark Lazzarini

    We are past the point of allowing exceptions for wine and liquor bottles to not be included in our CRV efforts. The Wine and Liquor Industries need to practice good citizenship with the rest of industries that promote recycling for the betterment of our environment and to support our youth who benefit from the CRV program through organizations like the San Jose Conservation Corps.

  • Keith Miller

    It makes sense to add the CRV on these bottles and if it helps the kind of program that is being cut all the more reason to support this effort.

  • Parc Smith

    I fully support the CRV program including Wine and Liquor bottles. This makes too much sense not to do! Keeping kids off the streets, recovering drop outs, giving them job skills while meeting important community needs and completing conservation projects. Youth become self sufficient through the job skills and work experience they gain, and they get a HS diploma so that they can be more employable. More states need this kind of forward thinking to help close the gap for dropouts and unemployed youth! Go California, get this done! This is WIN-WIN-WIN!

  • LeslieFM

    CRV is a no brainer on wine and liquor containers

  • Mary Senyonga

    It makes so much sense to add wine bottles and other liquor bottles to the CRV to create more funds for wonderful programs like the Conservation Corps. We have the added benefit of less trash in landfills.

  • Paul Lauenstein

    And while we’re at it, let’s make bottle redemption easier and more efficient with systems like CLYNK. See:

  • BlogZilla

    I think it’ absolutely stupid that wine and liquor bottles are exempt from the state redemption porgrams. It’s just dumb, there is no other way to explain it.


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios' science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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