Bottle Bills Proliferate In States and in Congress

THE bottle bill is back, not to clean up America's roads and highways but to boost recycling and to cut the flow of the cluttered-waste stream. But while environmentalists favor container deposit legislation, as it is formally known, bottlers and retailers do not. They argue such laws cost money and subtract from community recycling.

Lawmakers in 18 states and in the Congress will revisit the issue this year. Most bottle bills require consumers to pay a 5-or 10-cent deposit on each plastic, aluminum, and glass soft-drink container that is redeemable.

Nine states have such bottle bills in place. Michigan is the only state requiring a 10-cent deposit. A 5-cent deposit is required in Oregon, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Delaware (where aluminum is excepted). California has a modified system that pays only for the scrap value of returned containers.

Several of these bottle-bill states are expanding their laws: Maine now requires deposits on all beverage containers, except milk.

``There's a proven record out there that the best way to collect these materials is through a deposit system,'' says Pat Franklin, director of the National Container Recycling Coalition, a research and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. ``The deposit system collects these materials and gets them to the recycling center clean and separated.''

Nickels and dimes

In Congress, Rep. Paul Henry (R) of Michigan introduced legislation Feb. 20 that would require a 10-cent deposit on bottles and cans, redeemable upon return. Exemptions would be granted in those states where return rates are already 70 percent or higher. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon is expected to introduce similar legislation (but for 5-cent deposits) in the Senate next week.

``We're saying the chance is 50-50 for passing, which is good,'' says Bob Filka, legislative assistant for Representative Henry. Though legislation like this has been introduced before, supporters say it might have a better chance this year if amended to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 - the hazardous- and solid-waste management law that is up for reauthorization.

``At least we have generated a new enthusiasm for state initiatives,'' says Mr. Filka, citing Florida and Ohio as likely to pass laws this year. The governors of both states promoted bottle bills during their November campaigns.

But bottlers, container companies, and retailers complain that having to collect empties costs them money, and depletes community recycling loads of high-value waste.

Retailers, such as supermarkets, spend about 2.4 cents per container for handling and storing returns, according to a 1980 study by the Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade group. In areas where space is a premium, that cost is higher. A Manhattan supermarket chain, D'Agostino, concluded in a 1989 study that the per-container cost of accepting returns was 5 cents.

`Gold in the bin'

To help relieve this, however, the legislation before Congress (and in several states) requires distributors to reimburse retailers 2 cents per container.

``Our industry has 3.5 percent of the solid waste stream, but it is gold in a recycling bin. When you have a bottle bill, you take those cans and bottles out of the curbside recycling program and remove the major portion of the scrap value the [community] recycler gets,'' says Jim Finkelstein, vice president for communications at the National Soft Drink Association, a trade group based in Washington, D.C.

At present, 42 percent to 50 percent of all soft-drink containers are recycled. He declined to comment on the amount of money his group is spending to defeat state and national bottle-bill legislation.

But Ms. Franklin disagrees with the charge that curbside programs and deposit laws are incompatible. After studying Rhode Island, where curbside and drop-off recycling programs operate statewide, she estimates that between 31 and 47 percent more waste would be diverted from the waste stream if that state also had a deposit law.

Other studies have found the same. Franklin and Associates (no relation to Pat Franklin) in Missouri concluded that curbside systems combined with deposit laws increased the overall costs of the community program. But together the two systems removed 17 to 35 percent more material from the waste stream.

Deposits are more ``user'' specific, too, notes Franklin. If you buy the beverage, you pay the deposit. Community recycling programs are paid for by all taxpayers.

Unclaimed deposits

Bottlers swept in nearly $100 million in unclaimed deposits in Massachusetts in a Feb. 19 decision that refused to give the state retroactive claim to the money. But state legislatures in Massachusetts and Michigan have recently passed ``escheat'' laws that set aside unclaimed money for state recycling programs.

Bottlers in both states have filed law suits. The bill before the House sets aside all unclaimed deposits for state discretion.

Roughly 20 percent of all containers are not returned in states with bottle bills. In states without bottle bills, beverage containers make up 40 to 60 percent of all litter, according to a November 1990 study by the General Accounting Office. The study also found that more than 70 percent of Americans support a national beverage container deposit law.

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