Saturday, September 28, 2002

Bottle Deposit Laws

This is not an especially earth-shaking topic. On a scale of sexiness, it probably ranks really low. As an ethical concern, there are matters like what to do with radioactive waste and other hazardous materials that are probably more pressing. This is one of those mundane subjects that we probably don't really give much thought. Every one of us buys food and beverages, consumes the products, and throws away the containers.

Our trash can be found in landfills, along public and private lands, and maybe in recycling centers. Some materials are easier to recycle than others, and there have been local initiatives in many places to try to make that recycling happen. Bottle deposit bills have seen some success in getting people to return some of these more easily recycled materials to manufacturers. Should the practice be more widespread? Should the federal goverment get involved?

In twelve states in the US, you pay extra money as a deposit when you buy some beverages in supermarkets and convenience stores. A story in today's Boston Globe called Fewer find state bottle law is worth the nickel takes a look at the process in Massachusetts. Frankly, I'm a little upset over what they are doing with unclaimed deposits:
In 1990, the Legislature passed a law directing that all unclaimed bottle and can deposits be turned over to the state. The state's initial take was $8 million, but with Massachusetts residents now failing to redeem nearly one out of every three containers, the so-called Clean Environment Fund took in more than $37 million last year. This year most of that money has gone to plug budget gaps instead of recycling efforts.
The justification for a bottle deposit is to reduce pollution, and not to act as a tax on people who drink beer and soft drinks. If that money went to address environmental issues, I would probably feel better about the state collecting those unclaimed deposits.

There are grass roots movements to get bottle deposit laws enacted in other states, such as Virginia and Alabama. Some New Yorkers are pushing for an expansion in the types of bottles that are covered under New York's laws. People in Vermont are asking for an increase in the amount of the deposit there, which has remained at a nickle since the introduction of the law in 1972. The US House is looking at a bill to implement a nation wide system for recycling bottles. The legislation which was introduced this summer is the National Beverage Producer Responsibility Act of 2002 (pdf), which was presented to the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials on July 29th.

There are also consumer advocacy groups like the GrassRoots Recycling Network sharing information about bottle bills and corporate responsibility for using recycled materials. One of the things they state is that:
The beverage industry knows what works: the 10 states with ‘bottle bills’ requiring deposit-return systems recycled more containers than the other 40 states put together.
They have some good links for more information on the national bill. There are some interesting things going on with the bill, like the ability of manufacturers to opt-out of the deposit requirement if they can show that 80 percent of a particular brand is being recycled.

We have a bottle bill in Delaware that returns five cents for each bottle redeemed. Is that too little? Is that too much? Should the law be expanded beyond carbonated products and beer to some of the newer popular beverages such as fruit drinks and bottled water? Does a bottle bill make a difference? Should corporations play more of a part in the post-consumer usage of the containers their products are sold within, and governments less? Should the federal law pre-empt state laws?

Yes, it's a pretty mundane topic. But it involves a lot of bottles. And, post consumer recycling can make a difference.