September 14, 2009
Breaking down barriers
Supporters don’t expect bottle bills to pop up like plastic and cans along the roadside, but they are heartened by recent legislation in some states and hope to see a ripple effect to make container deposit laws more common.
New York’s Bigger Better Bottle Bill became law in April but had been on hold until mid-August when a judge lifted an injunction to delay its implementation.
The law does not change the 5-cent deposit on containers but does require reverse vending machines at many retail outlets, and it requires a separate UPC code to prevent bottles from neighboring states from being redeemed in New York. It also was expanded to include bottled water under a gallon in size, but those bottles are exempt until a hearing Oct. 22, when water companies have to submit proof that they need more time to comply.
A key part of the legislation changes the way unclaimed deposits are handled. Beer and soda companies have held onto the unclaimed nickels since New York’s bill was created in 1982; now the firms have to transfer 80% of the unclaimed deposits they collect to the state’s general fund — a move expected to raise $115 million in the first year, according to New York Public Interest Research Group, which lobbied to get the expanded bill approved.
Connecticut earlier this year also added bottled water to its deposit-bearing containers and required that some or all of the unclaimed deposits fall under the state’s control.
“People are encouraged by recent events. People want to try new approaches in order to break down traditional barriers,” said Susan Collins, who in late July became executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, based in Culver City, Calif.
“My phone rings a lot. I’ve heard from people in at least 10 states that don’t currently have container deposit laws,” Collins said. “People realize there is more to beverage containers than soda or beer, so there’s definitely a trend toward expanding existing programs to include all container types.”
Laura Haight, senior environmental associate at NYPIRG, said she also has fielded calls from around the country from people trying to reintroduce bottle bills or modify existing laws.
“People less involved than I could say this will have a domino effect, but I do not underestimate the entrenched opposition to this type of legislation and the enormous clout behind it,” she said. “The fact is, only one new bottle bill has passed in the last 20 years, and that was Hawaii.”
In addition to New York and Hawaii, other states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon and Vermont.
Aligning the resources necessary to get a bottle bill approved or even modify an existing one is a huge undertaking, Haight said.
“We had more than 800 organizations involved supporting it. The governor supported it; newspapers had written editorials in support; we had polling in our favor; and we had a full-time campaign for seven years, and even with all that we barely made it,” she said. “We did everything right and a pretty phenomenal job, but it still feels like a fluke that we made it.”
The beverage industry has tried for years to repeal existing laws and has fought efforts to introduce new ones, Haight said, but “what the industry underestimated was the public support of the program and the comfort level people have with deposits.”
Consumers have abided by deposit laws for decades, and it has become easier to redeem containers in New York at retail locations with reverse vending machines and at redemption centers that have sprung up solely to collect containers.
“People know [the containers] have value, and one thing we know is that litter will go down,” Haight said. “We’ve talked to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers over the years, and most people know the deposit law helped make communities cleaner. It’s a pretty simple system: People trust that the bottle will get recycled.”
Also working in favor of bottle bills may be the budget strain that many states are feeling amid the recession, she said. It may become more attractive to legislators to consider a container deposit law that uses unclaimed deposits to fund designated programs or simply supplement a state’s general fund.
In Tennessee, Marge Davis is leading the charge for a new bottle law, and she said she feels confident that the bill can make it out of legislative committees in 2010.
The proposal calls for a 5-cent deposit, and it does not require retailers to take back containers. “They have to want to do it and have a separate redemption center. It also eliminates the handling fee from the distributor,” said Davis, who is the coordinator of Pride of Place, a volunteer group focused on cleaning Tennessee’s roads, increasing recycling, bolstering the economy and fostering public pride by helping pass a bottle bill. The group’s costs are funded by Davis.
Legislative support is bipartisan with 15 sponsors, she said, and she thinks the bill will get the votes it needs if it can break through the committee process.
“The beverage distributors, the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, soft drink companies and the Grocery Manufacturers Association continue to fight it pretty hard,” Davis said. “They will never be convinced that a deposit is the way to go. Single-stream curbside recycling is their shining beacon on the hill. But we have a statewide mandate to reach a 25% recycling rate, and we haven’t gotten there in 18 years. It’s not for lack of people willing to do it but because there’s not enough access or peer example. Very few communities in Tennessee have city-provided curbside pickup.”
The American Beverage Association supports comprehensive efforts to recycle but not methods that single out containers, said Tracey Halliday, vice president of communication.
After the injunction was lifted in New York, the association issued a statement expressing its disappointment with the ruling: “The beverage industry remains committed to being a leader in environmental stewardship. However, bottle bills are not the answer to addressing solid waste issues. Rather, they are simply another tax on consumers. Furthermore, deposit systems are inefficient and ineffective, and do little to help the environment as they target such a small part of the waste stream,” the ABA said.
The National Association for PET Container Resources, based in Sonoma, Calif., takes a neutral stand on bottle bills, Executive Director Dennis Sabourin said.
The group’s members include makers of PET resin and container manufacturers — many of them consumer product companies and beverage firms.
“Even though NAPCOR does not take a position on bottle bills, a lot of interest has been expressed for recycled PET because of issues of sustainability and producing a material that has an advantaged carbon footprint,” Sabourin said.
CRI’s Collins said she is encouraged by the growing use of recycled content in beverage containers and the push to use 100% recycled material. As bottlers and other firms shift toward such packaging, they will need more consistent streams of high-quality recycled plastic.
“If you look at the greenhouse gas production of a 100% recycled bottle, it’s dramatically different than a virgin bottle,” she said, noting that beverage companies realize they need recycled content to reduce their carbon footprint. “And if [companies] want quality material, they need to get it from clean sources like bottle bills, not dirty sources like MRFs or curbside sources. The quality is fabulous from sites in places that have bottle bills.”
Collins finds promise in the 2008 sustainability report from Coca-Cola Inc., released in July of this year, which states that “primary packaging is responsible for the largest part of the carbon footprint of our products” and that fact “highlights the importance of lightweighting our packaging, increasing the recycled content of our packaging materials, and ensuring that our packaging is recycled by consumers.”
The beverage giant’s report goes on to say that its long-term goal is to recycle and recover 100% of its packaging.
“That’s something that didn’t exist a few years ago,” Collins said.
Recent letters to the editor from Kim Jeffery, chief executive of Nestle Waters North America, give Collins hope that the tide is turning in their favor on the big business end of the equation.
“We fully support efforts to update New York’s 27-year-old bottle law to increase recycling, but the current bill was a step in the wrong direction,” Jeffery wrote in a letter published Sept. 3 in the Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.
“We agree that more robust recycling laws must be passed to prevent bottles from ending up in landfills or along highways,” Jeffery wrote. “That is why the current bill must make recycling more accessible and convenient for consumers by requiring all retailers to accept all bottles. We also believe the bill should do more to promote recycling by requiring deposits for all beverages. Exempting noncarbonated sugary beverages not only penalizes consumers for choosing healthier drinks, but will discourage consumers from recycling more types of bottles.”
Collins isn’t calling Nestle an ally, but she finds the tone encouraging.
“They are more supportive than what I’ve seen in the past,” Collins said. “[Jeffery] basically says that Nestle Waters is in support of bottle bills, and I don’t know that you can find another beverage company that has a position like that.”
Haight is less willing to give Nestle and other beverage companies credit because she says she doesn’t see action to back up their pledges.
“Coke and Pepsi in their corporate literature tout a green image and are using more recycled content in their bottle, which is a very good thing,” she said. “They may increase the demand for recycled plastic by making their pledges, but they do nothing to increase the supply.”
Nestle failed to be a constructive part of the process too, Haight said.
“Companies have not done the right thing. Nestle Waters comes out with an ad campaign all over the state saying, ‘There’s a better way.’ We worked on this for nine years and they never spoke out, but after the law is enacted they want something else,” Haight said.
Still, Collins said she is optimistic.
“Sure, there are cons to bottle bills in the eyes of some. Everything is a series of trade-offs. But for me, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Other stakeholders see disadvantages to bottle bills, and I respect that,” Collins said.
“Our job is to come up with solutions that might mitigate some of their concerns, and I think we might be able to do better than in the past.”