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California recycling law lacks oversight

  • In this photo taken Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, a plastic shopping bag liters the roadside in Sacramento, Calif. In an effort to reduce the cluttering of California, in 2006 the state Legislature passed a law requiring grocery stores and other large retailers to give consumers an easy way of returning used bags. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO — Seeking to reduce the number of plastic shopping bags cluttering California's beaches and landfills, the state Legislature in 2006 passed a law requiring grocery stores and other large retailers to give consumers an easy way of returning used bags.

Stores handing out plastic bags to customers were directed to collect used bags for recycling and make reusable bags available for purchase.

Seven years later, recycling bins continue to sit outside California stores. But the agency in charge of the recycling program can't say how many bags are being recycled or whether the program has affected the demand, factors that could help state lawmakers in weighing proposals to ban the product.

Stores are required to submit annual reports detailing how many bags were bought by the store, how many were returned by consumers and which recyclers processed them.

A review by The Associated Press found data has not been analyzed since 2009, two years after the law took effect. Then, 3 percent of California's plastic bags were being recycled, a 1 percentage point increase.

While totals of bags purchased and recycled during the last three years were made available after an AP request, Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery spokesman Mark Oldfield said those numbers have not been verified so the official recycling rate can be updated.

He said the program lacks resources to analyze recent reports. No fees are charged to bag manufacturers or retailers. While the law allows for fines if stores do not comply, no violations have been issued.

"Work on the program at this point consists of a few weeks of data entry by entry-level staffers when the reports come in during the spring," Oldfield said.

Last year, lawmakers renewed the law through 2020. But in doing so, they did not give the recycling department, known as CalRecycle, more authority or money to improve oversight.

At least four other states, including New York and Delaware, have enacted statewide recycling programs to prevent plastic waste. More than a dozen states this year considered fees or bans on the bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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