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March 29, 2006

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

Dumping on ex-Mainer's bottle bill

If Marge Davis had a nickel for every bottle and can she sees lying along the roadside near her home, she'd be . . . never mind. Down in her neck of the woods, it's not going to happen anytime soon.

"It certainly will not pass this year," Davis, who grew up in Portland and now lives in Mount Juliet, Tenn., said of her beloved bottle bill, which gets its first hearing before Tennessee's legislature today. "These things are so incremental - it took California 10 years to pass a bottle bill."

That's right, folks. Three decades after Maine decided to put its money where its empties were - and in the process cleaned up its roadsides virtually overnight - many states continue to trash returnable bottles and cans as the work of environmental extremists who'll stop at nothing to . . . cut down on litter?

States like Tennessee, where Davis has lived since 1979.

"I had a news crew out at my house last spring and we went out to the road and started counting empties," she recalled. At 5 cents per container, "I had up to $2 without even moving my feet."

It is, Davis believes, a cultural thing. While most Mainers now wouldn't dream of rolling down the car window and tossing an empty to the wind, Tennesseans do it all the time.

And while most Mainers waste no time picking up those Bud Light cans that occasionally do end up on the roadside, Tennesseans let them grow into local landmarks. Davis' Tennessee Bottle Bill Project recently held its annual "Message in a Bottle" photo contest. The winners (posted at www.tnbottlebill.org) look like the aftermath of a Maine charity bottle drive - minus the big check and smiling faces.

"I love the South. I've been here for half my life," said Davis. "But the fact is, we have a fairly nonprogressive record when it comes to things that are environmentally friendly."

She's tried to cite Maine, where she still summers, as an example that Tennessee would do well to follow. She even brought her bill's sponsor, state Rep. Russell Johnson, up here in December to show him how we do it - starting with those "reverse vending machines" that gobble up empties and spit back receipts.

"He thought that was great fun," Davis said.

But alas, Davis and Johnson so far are no match for the beverage industry. Year after year, the beer and soft-drink lobbyists have crushed bottle bills in Tennessee and the 38 other states that still lack them - just as they tried in the late 1970s to thwart returnables here in Maine.

Davis can't believe the slanders she's heard her opponents hurl at her home state: Maine's food stores are crawling with rodents drawn by the scent of dried Sprite. Maine forces - that's right, forces - its citizens to recycle all of their household trash . . .

"They even say Mainers don't eat fast food, so therefore they don't have as much litter," she said.

Davis tries her best to set the record straight. She tells Tennessee lawmakers how many times she's asked people in Maine if they'd do it all over again - and how they universally respond that the bottle bill is the best thing that ever happened to the Pine Tree State.

Along with, of course, the ban on billboards.

"We have those too," lamented Davis.

Copyright © 2006 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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