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Thu08062020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Even the special interests that helped kill a California Senate bill aimed at reforming beverage-bottle recycling say the state needs to fix its broken system—and one lawmaker who voted no on the bill says he might just introduce his own.

Authored by Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont, the Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have required beverage distributors to design a new recycling program—and to help pay for it themselves. But the bill failed a critical juncture after it fell four votes short of passage.

Wieckowski’s bill was one of a handful aimed at addressing two major problems plaguing California’s recycling industry. One is the turmoil in global recycling markets that kicked off when China decided to stop importing much of the world’s waste. The second is the home-grown death of California’s bottle-recycling businesses.

That’s the one Wieckowski’s bill aimed to fix. “My hope was to reshape the recycling industry in California so that we have a system that makes it convenient for consumers,” Wieckowski said. “No one—in California or outside California—thinks that the current system in California is working.”


A New Focus: Single-Use Packaging

Special interests and legislators instead are focusing on a set of identical bills collectively called the California Circular Economy and Pollution Reduction Act. The act aims to curb waste from single-use packaging and food-service items like containers, forks and stirrers that Californians use once, and then toss.

Spearheaded by Democratic lawmakers Sen. Ben Allen from Santa Monica and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, the effort calls for cutting three-quarters of the waste from these single-use products in the next 10 years. It also requires manufacturers to make such items 100 percent compostable or recyclable starting in 2030.

Those bills are “the big game that we’ve been seeing,” said Tim Schmelzer, vice president of California state relations at the Wine Institute, an advocacy organization that represents the California wine industry.

Wieckowski’s bill, Schmelzer said, “was kind of an unfortunate distraction here in January, and we can get back to work on the real bills.”

Allen voted to pass Wieckowski’s bill—saying it was an important conversation-starter.

“If anything, conversations that I had during the debate over the Wieckowski bill give me confidence that the members understand what a big problem there is, and they are interested in a comprehensive solution to our waste management problems,” Allen said. 

But Allen and Gonzalez’s Act—on which Wieckowski is a co-author—stalled in September. As the act wound its way through the Legislature, its focus shifted from curbing plastic pollution to reducing waste from all materials. It picked up amendments that ended opposition from plastic and beverage companies represented by powerful trade groups—the American Chemistry Council and the American Beverage Association. It even won support from the plastic company Dow Inc.

The act also, however, picked up opposition from the glass and wine industries. The Wine Institute’s Schmelzer said the industry was concerned by what he called “unfettered authority” granted to CalRecycle. His organization would also like to see clearer rules surrounding industry plans to meet state recycling targets.

Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, said his organization needs to see more before switching positions. “We support the goals of the circular economy legislation,” he said. Still, “The details of those issues matter, and need to be fleshed out a little bit before we can really consider changing a stated position.”


“We Are Going to Hold You Responsible for Doing Your Part”

No amendments to the act have been publicly posted since it stalled in September, so its current breadth is unclear. But Schmelzer and Allen’s team have been working to resolve the Wine Institute’s concerns so it can drop its opposition. “We’re not (having) hard, throw-our-bodies-across-the-tracks, we-should-never-try-to-recycle type of objections. It’s like, let’s make this bill work a little better,” Schmelzer said.

In the process, Allen said he’s made an effort to understand industry issues first hand. “I’ve toured secondary (materials recovery facilities); I’ve toured glass-bottling facilities. I’ve been to the mattress recyclers, carpet,” he said. “I’ve been to a water-bottling facility for plastic bottles; I’ve got the chance to sit down with city waste management people and haulers and recyclers. This is all complicated stuff.”

Ultimately, he said, the bill sets goals—and manufacturers will have to figure out how to meet them.

“At the heart of all this, of our efforts, is a message to manufacturers,” Allen said. “‘We are going to hold you responsible for doing your part, but we’re going to let you do what you need to do.’”


“There Needs to Be a Major Overhaul”

Like Wieckowski’s bill, the act includes beverage bottles that Californians can currently return for rebates—but only starting in 2026.

That’s not soon enough, said Jeff Donlevy, general manager for recycling company Ming’s Resources-East Bay and a board member of Protect CRV, a coalition of recycling centers and processors.

“Recycling centers need help this year, this session—and if we don’t get some legislation this session, we’re going to need the governor to step up with some budget solutions,” he said. “Because more recycling centers will close, especially in the higher-operating cost areas like Northern California.”

Under California’s “bottle bill,” Californians pay an extra 5 or 10 cents for most beverages—except milk, wine and hard alcohol. Then, they can trade empty beverage bottles and cans for a refund at recycling centers, or, if there are none nearby, at certain supermarkets. Not all the grocery stores obligated to participate actually do, however, opting instead to pay a fee of $100 a day.

Recycling centers have been shuttering for years, however—leaving Californians who rely on the income in the lurch. The shutdowns culminated with the closure of major California recycler rePlanet’s remaining 284 facilities last August, which the company attributed to high operating costs, lower returns for recycled materials, and insufficient state fees—despite a $25 million payout in 2018 from CalReycle.

Wieckowski’s Beverage Container Recycling Act of 2020 would have scrapped the program and started over. The bill would have tasked companies and manufacturers that sell beverages to dealers in California with developing a new system and helping to cover the costs. The program would also have included beverages currently excluded from the bottle bill including wine and liquor.

Protect CRV would have supported the bill had it been amended to include more support for existing recycling centers, Donlevy said. “It’s disappointing, because it was the only true bottle bill legislation going forward,” Donlevy said. “We supported the overall idea of comprehensive reform, because there needs to be a major overhaul. And Sen. Wieckowski took the lead on it.”

The beer and wine industry raised concerns about requiring beverage distributors to lead the effort.

“Distributors are in no position to dictate recycling policies to our suppliers, retail customers, and local governments,” according to a statement from California Beer and Beverage Distributors, a trade association that opposed the bill.

Schmelzer said the Wine Institute also objected to including wine bottles in a redemption program, instead favoring recycling at the curb. “We don’t think a redemption-style program where people have to haul in our wine bottles is an effective way to recycle our products,” he said.


“A Desire to Move”

One senator who voted no, Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa, said he believes the wine industry’s concerns are valid, calling the bill “a band-aid to a major problem in the recycling program.” Still, Dodd said, “The days of them not being involved, and not paying into some sort of program, have to be over.”

While Dodd hasn’t seen the most recent amendments to Allen and Gonzalez’s joint effort, he said it’s fair to say he supports it. And he told CalMatters that after voting no on Wieckowski’s bill, he’s considering introducing his own.

“You can’t say no to something like that, and then not be responsible and offer an alternative,” Dodd said. “What I’d really like to do is to present a bill, an alternative going forward, to bring glass and aluminum and plastic beverage containers all together in a more-effective program.”

Dodd said his bill would make producers responsible for the program, not distributors—although his team is still working on what exactly “producer” encompasses. It could include wineries, or major soda companies, or even glass manufacturing companies—“all of them having that stake,” he said. “If we put it on the producers, they’ll figure out the best way forward.”

Californians might be able to weigh in themselves. Recology—an employee-owned California recycler—continues to collect signatures for a ballot measure it’s funding. The measure bans polystyrene food containers and takes aim at single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils—requiring that manufacturers pay a one-penny tax on these items, sell 25 percent fewer of them, and ensure that what theysell is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030.

The tax, according to a financial analysis, would bring in “a few billion dollars annually.” The goal is to help pay for improvements to recycling infrastructure and offset costs, according to Eric Potashner, Recology’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs.

Early polling suggests the measure could be a popular one; 64 percent of Californians surveyed said they would definitely or probably vote yes, according to a report Potashner shared with CalMatters. “We’re on schedule to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot,” he said.

And California Gov. Gavin Newsom nudged the Legislature in January to take action, saying in his budget proposal: “The administration is committed to working with the Legislature so producers have the responsibility and flexibility to meet recycling requirements for products that ultimately end up in the waste stream.”

Newsom said at a budget press conference that he gave recycling a shout-out to show “a desire to move and a deep desire to look at packaging—to look holistically at the whole recycling space.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

A teenage girl walks the hardscrabble streets of Richmond, a Bay Area city, rapping about the challenges of drugs, violence—and diabetes.

Here, she says, big dreams are “coated in sugar,” and innocence is “corrupted with Coke bottles and Ho Ho cupcakes.”

She’s performing in a video by a local youth group that counts diabetes—a national epidemic that has hit California hard—as one of the killers in her neighborhood. The disease, which is spreading and driving up health costs, now impacts more than half of the state’s adults, especially people of color and the poor.

Experts say it doesn’t have to be that way—that prevention programs can slow the march of the illness and save money at the same time. But efforts to legislate prevention—for example, taxing the sugary drinks whose consumption contributes to diabetes—have stalled in the face of heavy opposition by the well-funded beverage lobby.

The state will soon begin funding a program for anti-diabetes education, counseling and lifestyle coaching, but it’s a modest investment regarded only as a start.

“Investing more now in diabetes prevention and education will save our state billions of dollars down the road,” said state Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel who has proposed soda taxes in the past, and tried unsuccessfully this year to require warning labels on sweetened drinks.

A UCLA study last year found that 9 percent of adults in California have been diagnosed with diabetes, a chronic condition in which the body does not process sugar well, which can lead to blindness, heart disease, stroke and infections resulting in amputations. Forty-six percent—including about a third of those under 40—are pre-diabetic, with elevated sugar levels that will likely develop into diabetes.

That’s 55 percent of the state’s adult population swept up by the disease.

Treating diabetes costs government, private insurers and patients about $27.6 billion a year in California, for such expenses as doctor visits, testing, medication, surgery and hospital costs, according to the American Diabetes Association. The state and federal governments shoulder most of that expense through Medi-Cal, California’s health program for those living in poverty, as well as the national Medicare system that covers seniors.

A state audit of the California Department of Public Health diabetes-prevention efforts released two years ago said that California lagged in such spending. The state spent about $1 million from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a sum that has since grown to $1.4 million, but did not devote state money to programs. New York, the audit points out, was spending $7.2 million, although some of that money went to anti-obesity programs.

Beginning in July, with the next budget, $5 million in state funds will go toward a nutrition and exercise program for pre-diabetic enrollees in Medi-Cal. That project, based on a CDC model called the Diabetes Prevention Program, can cut the risk of developing diabetes in half, according to the CDC. In addition, it is expected to save about $45 million in treatment expenses over the next five years, said Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, a Kingsburg Democrat and physician who co-chairs a health subcommittee.

Flojaune Cofer, an epidemiologist and director of state policy and research for the nonprofit Public Health Advocates, said that about 25,000 people will be able to participate each year.

“We can’t just wait until people get sick, because it’s not a viable system,” Cofer said.

The largest state pension fund, CalPERs, began offering the CDC program to through its insurance plans this year, and Medicare will offer it nationally next year. It is also offered by some private insurers.

But adult-onset diabetes, or Type 2, doesn’t get the same attention as some other deadly diseases, such as cancer. Nor is it considered as blameless as Type 1 diabetes, a childhood disease diagnosed when the body produces little or no insulin.

Type 2 is considered mostly preventable by changes in diet and physical activity. But its spread has increased 32 percent in California in the past decade, according to state statistics. The disproportionate impact on low-income communities and people of color may partly explain why it gets short shrift, experts say.

“There’s a general belief that it’s slothful, lazy people making bad choices,” said Dean Schillinger, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco; he’s a leading expert on diabetes and prevention, and was chief of the state’s diabetes-control program from 2008 through 2013. “But if you have to choose between buying a fast-food meal for your family of five for $15 or going to Whole Foods and spending $80 on health food, it’s very rational what people are doing.”

Add to those economics the marketing of beverages and snack foods to children, especially through targeted advertising in low-income communities, and you have a natural intersection for the disease, he said. A federally funded study released this year found that diabetes grew at a rate of 4.8 percent among children each year between 2002 and 2012.

“It’s an unacceptable state of affairs,” Schillinger said. “We can and must do something to prevent young people from having an amputation or being blind by the age of 30.”

Diabetes is also increasing among white people, Schillinger noted, just not as quickly. Sedentary lifestyles, fat-rich diets and time spent in front of screens large and small cut across all communities.

Another contributor is a health care industry that has been primarily focused on treatment instead of prevention, said Monning: “Prevention, including diabetes prevention, is not profit-generating.”

He and a handful of other state legislators have been trying to pass measures to slow the growth of diabetes for years, focusing on the role of sugar-sweetened beverages—because they are the leading cause of increased calories in children. The lawmakers’ targets include not just sodas, but also other sugary drinks camouflaged as more healthful: sports drinks, juices and enriched waters.

Monning tried this year to require labels on certain drinks to state that “drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.” Other efforts have involved a statewide tax on such drinks, but that requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and has been a hard sell.

The beverage industry argues that the causes of diabetes are complex, involving much more than soda, and that the best way to build strong, healthy communities is to work together to “help people balance their calories and improve their diets,” said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association.

The group says taxes don’t work, and labels are misleading.

“America’s beverage companies are already helping people cut their sugar intake from beverages through our collective efforts to reduce portion sizes and introduce smaller, more convenient packages with less sugar,” Kane said.

But Monning blames the industry for pushing hard enough—and spreading enough money around Sacramento—to scare off the “yes” votes needed to pass preventive measures. The beverage group has spent $282,000 on lobbying in California so far this year, according to its required reports to the state. The two largest soda makers, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, have spent about $248,000. And in the last five years, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have contributed nearly $783,000 to state candidate campaigns, while the American Beverage Association gave $135,000, the filings show.

 There has been a slight decline nationally in the consumption of soda, studies show, although the void may be at least partly filled with other sweet drinks. Experts credit local measures to tax sweetened beverages and require warning labels on billboards that advertise them, among other moves.

Such taxes have been imposed in Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland. Other cities, including Richmond, have tried and failed to pass them. San Francisco approved a requirement two years ago that certain beverage ads be labeled, but the beverage industry sued to block the measure in a case that is ongoing.

More local taxes and labeling requirements could prompt state lawmakers into action eventually, as plastic-bag bans throughout the state did, said Monning. Once a tipping-point number of cities outlawed the bags, it became easier for the Legislature to adopt a statewide policy.

Schillinger said he has seen firsthand that prevention efforts can stem, or even reverse, an epidemic tide. When he started his medical career, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, half of his patients were dying from HIV infection, he recalls. Within 15 years, that epidemic was pushed back by a combination of grassroots activity, well-funded public health work and scientific research, he said.

“At that time, one out of 15 to 20 of my patients had diabetes,” he said. “Flash forward, and I have no patients with AIDS who are dying. Our AIDS ward is empty. But instead, we have the diabetes epidemic,” and half his patients have the disease.

Schillinger lauds community awareness efforts, like the videos posted by Youth Speaks as part of its diabetes-prevention program. Even armed with statistics and an M.D. degree, Schillinger said, he has participated in too many disappointing policy discussions with lawmakers about diabetes.

“There has to be a different way to talk about this,” he said, “and it has to come from different people.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

The metal tab pulls back with a familiar click-click-hissssss as bubbles rush to the top of the can. The alluring scent wafts through the air, a familiar smell that hints at what’s to come.

If you’re drinking a 20-ounce Mountain Dew, you’re consuming the equivalent of 18 teaspoons of sugar. A same-sized Pepsi equals 16 teaspoons, and a Coke comes out to 15. A 16-ounce Rockstar Energy Drink slams more than 15 teaspoons.

Here’s the problem with what you’re drinking, some scientists say: Humans are not biologically designed to deal with that much liquid sugar at once. Since there’s no digestion involved, it enters the bloodstream and is absorbed more quickly than food.

As it does, the sugar overwhelms the pancreas, the organ tasked with regulating blood sugar, and over time wears it out. Welcome to Type 2 diabetes.

Harold Goldstein, a doctor of public health, is the founding executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), a Davis-based nonprofit whose mission is to look for solutions to what scientists say is an alarming increase in diabetes and obesity in California.

About five years ago, the CPHA commissioned a study by the UC Center for Weight and Health to see if there was a correlation between obesity and sugary beverage consumption.

The UC study found that Americans on average were consuming 278 more calories a day than they were about 2 1/2 decades before, with 43 percent of those calories defined as new beverage calories.

“I had no idea what the answer was going to be, but what they came up with was simple and compelling,” Goldstein says. “I was stunned. It was twice as much as I guessed.”

We weren’t just eating more. We were drinking more. And mostly, we were drinking more sugar, a phenomenon that coincided with the “soda wars” of the ’70s and ’80s, where Coca Cola and Pepsi went head-to-head on television advertising campaigns. It also coincided with an increase in portion sizes: In the ’70s and ’80s, a 12-ounce can was the norm. Now, fast-food restaurants offer 32-ounce cups with free refills.

Another surprising statistic, this from the National Institutes of Health, via Goldstein: A quarter of teenagers, or 23 percent, have pre-diabetes, an increase from 9 percent just 10 years ago.

“These beverages are tricking the body,” Goldstein says. “The pancreas goes wild and the liver says, ‘Look at all this. I’d better save it for a rainy day and turn it into fat.’ There is a cohort of teens that will be entering the health-care system with higher rates of diabetes than ever.”

The grim statistics are why state Sen. Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat, backed by CCPHA and the Health Officers Association of California, continues a battle with the beverage industry.

On Feb. 11, Monning introduced Senate Bill 203, which would have required a warning label to be placed on the packaging of sugar-sweetened beverages including sodas, sweet teas, sports drinks and energy drinks. The label would have been required on drinks with 75 or more calories per 12 ounces and would read as follows: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING—Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”

However, the beverage industry was willing not only to put a lot of muscle and money behind the effort to stop him, but also to try to stop information they deem harmful to their industry from reaching the public—and their efforts paid off on April 29, when the bill was effectively killed by Senate Health Committee. Only four of the nine members voted for the bill; one senator voted against it, with four abstaining.

Last June, on the same day Bill Monning’s previous labeling bill died in the state Assembly Health Committee, PepsiCo spent $2,200 on a catered event for 13 legislators and more than three-dozen legislative staff members from the Latino Legislative Caucus, as the Sacramento Bee reported. Of the legislators who attended, two voted against SB 1000, the previous iteration of the labeling bill.

In 2014, the American Beverage Association California Political Action Committee, also known as the American Beverage Association Strategic Advocacy Fund, spent $11.8 million on various candidates and measures. Of that, $9.24 million went to the successful opposition of a soda tax floated before San Francisco voters. The group also spent $2.43 million to defeat a Berkeley soda tax, which passed despite fierce industry opposition.

The PAC donated $4,100 to Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who this year became head of the Latino Legislative Caucus, and the same to the Senate campaign of Ben Hueso, the San Diego Democrat who is vice chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus.

It put $27,200 into Gov. Jerry Brown’s campaign and $3,000 into Attorney General Kamala Harris’, too. It gave $46,000 to the Democratic State Central Committee of California and $10,000 to the California Republican Party.

Fast-forward to this year. The PAC started 2015 with $504,000 in the bank. The spokesman for the Latino Legislative Caucus PAC and foundation, Roger Salazar, is now the spokesman for CalBev, also known as the California-Nevada Beverage Association, the trade association representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry in California and Nevada. The Cal-Nev Soft Drink Association PAC spent $37,371 on various campaigns in 2014, mostly as $1,000 contributions to individual legislators.

In the hours and days that followed Monning’s announcement of his labeling bill, CalBev went on the offensive.

In a written statement, CalBev Executive Director Bob Achermann said obesity and diabetes are more complicated than a warning label. Monning’s bill is “misguided,” and singles out soft drinks while ignoring sugar-rich cupcakes, donuts and processed foods. It’s also riddled with loopholes that will confuse consumers, according to the statement.

For example, the release says, fountain sodas purchased at restaurants with table service will be exempt from labeling. The release also calls out milk-based products like Frappuccinos and lattes, which contain as much sugar and more calories than soft drinks.

Salazar says the industry has taken on an initiative to reduce sugar-sweetened consumption 20 percent by 2025.

“There are ways you can have a collaborative effort, but bills like this seek to demonize an industry with a shocking label when there are other, broader causes to obesity and diabetes we should be looking at,” Salazar says. “It’s about balancing calories, and there’s no question we support programs that educate people about nutrition and exercise.”

But the statement that there could be a collaborative effort came as news to Monning.

“They haven’t proposed any compromises to us that would work for them,” Monning says. “I think we’ve maintained open and cordial conversation. Their position on labeling is: They provide caloric information on the label, and consumers have that at their fingertips.”

Monning acknowledges other sources of sugar are out there, but says none are as dangerous.

“While sugar is in other foods,” he says, “medical evidence is clear that liquid consumption of sugar is more immediately damaging. When you eat it, more is eliminated through digestion.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Monterey County Weekly.

Published in Politics