New 'bottle bills' face crucial test in months ahead

Two of America's least compatible forces -- environmentalists and bottlemakers -- are at it again. Heated and sometimes costly clashes can be expected in legislative chambers from the Deep South to the Northwest over proposals to ban no-deposit beverage containers.

"Bottle bills," similar to those now on the books in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine , Michigan, and Oregon, have been filed or are being readied for consideration in Congress and in at least 28 states spanning the nation.

While unwilling to speculate how successful they might be, activists on both sides of the issue generally agree that the next two years, perhaps even the next few months, may be crucial.

Particularly strong bottle-bill efforts are taking shape in California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, And Rhode Island. Although "cautiously hopeful" that at least some of these proposals will make it through the 1981 state lawmaking thicket, some anti-litter forces may already be looking beyond coming legislative tussles to next year's state election ballots.

A statewide signature drive for a 1982 bottle-bill initiative petition is well under way in Arizona. Similar voter initiatives are being considered in several other states, including California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

Such campaigns, however, are bound to be costly. Those advocating bans on nonreturnable glass and metal beverage containers seem almost certain to be heavily outspent by vehement opponents.

Last fall, for example, glass and can industry forces plowed some $450,000 into their successful fight to block a modified bottle bill in Montana. By contrast, Montanans for Litter Control and Recycling (and others pushing the initiative) spent only $11,000. The measure called for an industry-financed recycling program which would require return of at least 85 percent of all beverage containers; but if recycling fell short of the mark, the bill would have imposed a ban on all no-deposit bottles and cans. The measure lost by a vote of nearly 3 to 1.

Mike Mails, one of the prime movers in the environmental coalition which sponsored the bill, is disappointed in the voter response, but says he is no less determined to put such a proposal on the books. If the opposition fails to come up with "an alternative we can accept, we'll have to try again next year," he says.

Boosters of a California bottle bill, who for the first time ever got their proposal out of legislative committee last year only to have it beaten 24 to 12 on the state Senate floor, appear less than optimistic about reinitiating the drive.

"We will try again and should we lose, we probably will go with an initiative petition in 1982," explains Ross Pumfrey, chairman of Californians Against Waste.He estimates that such a statewide effort -- requiring some 350,000 voter signatures -- would require close to $1 million. Approval of the measure would be a major setback to the opposition, which is expected to pour many times that amount into promotion of a "no" vote.

However, ballot initiatives in Maine in 1976 and Michigan in 1978 put bottle laws on the books despite stiff and well-financed pleas from bottlers and manufacturers of glass and metal beverage containers.And more recently, Maine voters in November 1979 overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to repeal the statute. The same day, however, bottle bills in Ohio and Washington were trounced.

Despite disappointments, those pushing for bans on nonreturnable bottles and cans, like Sandy Nelson of Washington-based Environmental Actions, say they are increasingly optimistic the laws are gaining in popularity.

"I am really encouraged by all the interest being expressed from concerned citizens in state after state," Miss Nelson says. She and her colleagues anticipate a strong new push for a national bottle law in Congress where the Senate committee which considers such measures is now chaired by Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon, a longtime supporter of the cause. Fellow Oregonian, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R), again is sponsoring the measure which seems sure to face strong opposition from bottle and can industry lobbyists.

Leaders of the Glass Packaging Institute, one of the groups in the forefront of the opposition, contend that outlawing no-deposit beverage containers "is not the answer to a cleaner environment." Instead they favor an alternative, providing for a so-called "litter tax" to finance citizen education programs and encourage recycling.

Such laws are on the books in at least seven states -- California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Virginia, and Washington. Critics contend that this approach has not worked well and has done little to reduce litter.

Meanwhile, the Connecticut litter tax is expected to be repealed in coming weeks. Lawmakers in this state generally agree the tax is unnecessary, since the state also has a bottle law.

Proposals to require a minimum 5-cent deposit on beverage containers is or soon will be under consideration in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, And Wyoming, plus Suffolk County on New York's Long Island.

The proposal on Long Island is expected to spark a round of lively public hearings within the next few weeks with the crucial vote coming by mid-March.

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