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February 22, 2011

The Portland Press Herald

Maine can do better job with both returnables and recycling
It's time to ask whether we need two separate systems to achieve one desirable social goal.

BIDDEFORD — We appreciate the attention Greg Kesich gave to bottle bill fraud in his recent column ("Bottle bill latest target in Maine's moment of change," Feb. 16), but his suggestion that Maine's beverage industry wants to go back to the days when our roadsides were littered with bottles and cans is unwarranted.

We agree that the bottle bill has been successful cleaning up litter and promoting recycling -- of beverage containers.

The greater challenge, though, is improving recycling for all other types of containers, packaging and printed materials (like this newspaper).

Beverage containers make up only 4 percent of the total waste stream.

So while we can congratulate ourselves for having a high bottle-bill recycling rate (70 percent to 75 percent, discounting fraud), it's not quite as impressive when you consider that we have a much lower recycling rate for all waste -- just 38 percent.

Twenty years ago, Maine set a goal to achieve a recycling rate of 50 percent for all items in our waste stream.

We are no closer to that goal now than we were a decade ago. And there are other states -- without bottle bills, by the way -- that are well ahead of us.

Isn't it worth asking the question then, is there a more effective, more efficient way to keep waste out of incinerators and landfills than to maintain two separate and costly systems -- one for beverage containers and another for everything else?

Every day Maine people drive to redemption centers to return bottles and cans. A 2007 study commissioned by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources indicated that citizens there drove an estimated 7.5 million miles every year just to return beverage containers.

That's about 3,500 tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere -- all attributable to the bottle bill.

Maine has twice the population of Vermont and is three times the size, so our bottle bill, which is far broader, likely is responsible for 8,000 to 10,000 tons of carbon emissions every year.

On top of that, there are three fleets of trucks on Maine roads every day -- one for non-alcoholic beverages, one for beer and wine, and one for all other beverages -- criss-crossing the state picking up returned containers. Each group purchases equipment and operates facilities to sort, crush, bale and sell aluminum cans and plastic bottles. Each group uses vast amounts of energy to do exactly the same thing.

Compare that to the many Maine communities that have adopted single-stream recycling.

They have no special trips to the redemption center for consumers. No additional truck fleets to pick up returnables. No energy wasted on duplicate facilities for processing bottles and cans.

Instead, one walk to the curb, one truck for pickup, and one facility for sorting, reclaiming and selling all recyclable waste.

What's better for the environment?

Last year, Delaware converted its bottle bill into an unprecedented effort to extend single-stream recycling to all parts of the state, covering residential, commercial, and public spaces. Vermont is considering legislation to replace its bottle bill with a program under which all producers fund a system to recover all packaging and printed material in the state.

And most Canadians live in provinces where comprehensive recovery programs rather than deposits dominate the recycling landscape.

The members of the Maine Beverage Association employ more than 1,300 Maine people in good-paying jobs with great benefits.

Our employees and, more importantly, our customers enjoy the great outdoors and want to protect Maine's environment as much as anyone else who lives here.

We do not want to go backwards; we want to do what makes sense -- environmentally and economically.

The world has changed dramatically since the bottle bill was implemented as a litter control measure 38 years ago. Back then, this newspaper probably was printed on paper with no recycled content using ink that contained trace heavy metals and was petroleum-based, not soy-based.

There still were open burning dumps, and no one had ever heard of single-stream recycling.

In 2011, is there a better recycling system? We think it's time for a thoughtful discussion. We don't claim to have the answers, but we are open to the idea that there might be a better way and we think other stakeholders -- environmental groups, municipalities, waste management companies, consumers -- should be, too.

If there aren't more efficient and environmentally friendly ways to achieve greater recycling, so be it. At least we know how to do the bottle bill.

But if there is a better alternative, we all would be foolish not to explore it.


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