April 8, 2011
Bottle bill not as efficient as it once was
Assumptions we made about its usefulness have been overtaken by universal recycling availability.
HALLOWELL - If I read your recent editorial correctly ("Bottle deposits work, so leave them alone," March 15), you don't even want to have a discussion about how to improve recycling in Maine if it involves any changes to the bottle bill.
While Mainers get a nickel back for bottles they bring to redemption centers, a parallel system collects other recyclables for free.
Newell Auger of Hallowell is director of the Maine Beverage Association (www.ameribev.org)
That's a pretty narrow perspective. And it flies in the face of discussions happening throughout the country.
In Delaware, Iowa and Vermont, legislation has been introduced to reassess bottle bills with a goal of finding more efficient ways to recycle all waste. Remember, those states have bottle bills, so it stands to reason that their environmental ethic is nearly as strong as ours.
The bottle bill, without question, was successful getting beverage containers off our roads. That was the original reason it was passed.
Over the years, it turned into a recycling program. But as you acknowledged, it's very limited in what it recycles. Beverage containers make up only 4 percent of the total waste stream. Unless the Legislature also wants to put a 5-cent deposit on newspapers, coffee cups and plastic bags, the bottle bill will never have broader impact on our overall recycling effort.
Why should a discussion about recycling include the role of the bottle bill? Because many of the assumptions we once made about its usefulness are no longer true.
In 1989, the bottle bill was expanded to include juice and water when many towns had barely begun recycling programs. Those containers were being buried in landfills, at significant cost to municipalities and the environment. Adding them to the bottle bill was the only available option at the time.
But today's landscape is different. Everyone in Maine has access to recycling through programs that accept household products made of many different materials. Those materials are sorted, reprocessed and sold in the recyclable materials market. PET plastic and, in particular, aluminum hold some of the highest values for recycled material.
Some 98 percent of beverage containers sold by members of our association are made from PET plastic or aluminum. Today, local distributors process and sell those recycled containers, when they could be generating revenue for municipal recycling programs.
Additionally, more Maine communities are moving toward single-stream curbside recycling. It's simple, convenient and, with the right incentives, can revolutionize how people recycle.
I served on the Brunswick Town Council in 2006 when we converted to single-stream recycling and instituted a $1 charge for every bag of trash thrown out. The result: we cut the amount of trash headed to our landfill by nearly 50 percent. Last year, Brewer implemented nearly identical measures -- and increased its recycling rate 424 percent.
How does this affect the bottle bill? Some recycling programs are so convenient that people who don't like the hassle of taking beverage containers back to a redemption center increasingly are putting those containers into their recycling bin with all other recyclables.
Those folks, essentially, are charged a 5-cent tax per container for using their local recycling program versus driving to a redemption center.
And, absurdly, there are now people picking through those same recycling bins on trash collection day -- and taking out beverage containers.
If the 5-cent incentive is encouraging people to remove beverage containers that are already being recycled through a municipal program to put them through a totally duplicative private system, something's wrong.
After all, aluminum processed at regional waste facilities ends up in the same place as aluminum processed by beverage distributors. The only difference is how it gets there.
In the kinds of programs more towns are adopting, all recyclables go in one bin, get picked up curbside by one truck and taken to one facility for processing.
By contrast, beverage con- tainers are separated from other recyclables, taken separately by consumers to one of 815 redemption centers, separated again into hundreds of boxes, picked up by four different fleets of trucks and processed at multiple facilities. Which system sounds more efficient and better for the environment?
The bottle bill survives because of the 4-cent state-mandated handling fee beverage distributors pay on top of the deposit for each container -- fees ultimately passed on to Maine consumers.
Handling fees amount to $30 million annually, focused on just 4 percent of the waste stream. If we spent an equivalent amount on all solid waste, it would cost $1 billion annually.
We can never afford that, which is why we need to start thinking about how to build more effective recycling programs that use all the money spent on recycling more efficiently.
Given the rising challenge of global warming and our current economic situation, this is absolutely the right time to have that discussion.