April 18, 2011
Improving the Bottle Bill
Mainers are justifiably proud of the 1976 bottle bill, the law that placed a deposit on beverage containers. It has survived challenges and even expanded over the decades to include more types of containers.
The case can be made, however, that it is time to reconsider the law in the context of the larger effort to reduce the state’s waste stream. The bottle bill was passed to reduce roadside litter. It’s hard for younger people to imagine, but soda bottles and cans strewn along highways were a common sight in the 1960s. Maine’s bottle and can redemption law was part of a burgeoning environmental awareness of the early 1970s.
In the 1980s, an even more pressing public policy concern emerged — managing the state’s trash. With stricter groundwater protection laws, the state told municipalities to close their landfills. Instead of tossing and burying household and commercial trash, municipal solid waste, as it was now called, was trucked to incinerators for a per-ton fee.
In response, state government adopted aggressive recycling goals. One of the benchmarks was to recycle or compost 50 percent by Jan. 1, 2009. The rate is holding steady at 38 percent.
According to beverage industry representatives, containers with deposits make up just 4 percent of the waste stream, so they justifiably wonder why their products are treated differently than the newspapers, milk containers and tuna fish cans that are recycled at municipal centers.
If the state were creating a recycling program aimed at removing 50 percent or more from the waste stream, would it single out containers based on what they once held? The industry’s view, that beer, wine and soda bottles and cans probably would not be treated differently than milk, shampoo and tomato sauce containers, is logical.
The beverage industry further argues that the $30 million devoted to keeping those beer, wine and soda containers off the side of the road might be better spent helping people recycle more of other products. That $30 million goes to redemption centers that accept, sort and ship the returnables. The beverage industry also argues that sending trucks to redemption centers around the state is an inefficient way to process such a small part of the waste stream.
Its argument is compelling. Before ending the deposit system, though, some serious consequences must be weighed. One is the fate of to the 815 redemption centers, which are small businesses and employers. Another is determining how many beer, wine and soda bottles and cans would be discarded as trash.
If the deposit system is eliminated and overall recycling rates are to be increased, every town would have to implement single-stream recycling (in which consumers don’t have to separate their plastic from glass, metal and newspapers). Municipalities also would have to universally adopt pay-as-you-throw systems (in which people are charged to dispose of trash) to make the transition work. Both are problematic.
Gathering stakeholders to study the issue is a reasonable step. There may be a better way, which could be phased-in over several years. But the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” admonition must hang over those discussions.