Banning throwaway bottles, cans: crucial tests in West

Two of America's most divergent forces - environmentalists and bottlemakers - are arming anew for a crucial round of ballot battles.

Buoyed by the recent passage of a New York law banning throwaway soft-drink and beer containers, environmentalists are determined to make 1982 even more of a banner year for the so-called bottle laws. But the opposition, led by bottlers and the glass- and aluminum-packaging industry, makes it clear that it will be ready to thwart such efforts.

At issue are proposed bottle laws on the November ballots of Arizona, California, Colorado, and perhaps Washington, and a referendum in Massachusetts to repeal such a measure.

Bottle-industry spokesmen, like Roger Bernstein of the Washington-based Glass Packaging Institute, were both surprised and decidedly disappointed by the ''bottle law'' making it onto New York books. But they say they doubt it will affect votes in other states. Nor do they anticipate the new measure, which does not take effect until July 1983, will boost the prospects for passage of a national law.

US Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon and US Rep. James M. Jeffords (R) of Vermont, the prime movers behind a proposal imposing mandatory deposits nationwide on beer and soft-drink containers, say they are not convinced there is sufficient support in Congress for passage. It is unlikely such a proposal will be pushed during the waning months of the 97th Congress.

How hard such legislation is pushed next year will, in the opinion of those on both sides, be influenced in part by the outcome in November of state bottle-law proposals. Opposition forces generally agree that because California is so large, approval there of a mandatory deposit statute would be a major setback.

But they refuse to term any of their coming battles as crucial to their cause. Mr. Bernstein notes that bottle measures were rejected in Washington state in 1970 and 1979, in Colorado in 1976, as well as in Alaska, Nebraska, Ohio, and Montana in the past five years.

Bottlers, concerned that using returnable containers will cost them more money, and bottle and aluminum-can makers, who stand to lose business if throwaways are outlawed, argue that mandatory deposits are not the answer to the litter problem.

In fighting passage of the New York statute, they warned it would have a $400 million impact on consumers and cause considerable inconvenience in taking bottles and cans back to stores or to recycling centers.

The environmentalists, meanwhile, cite studies in bottle-law states such as Michigan, which indicate a sharp reduction in litter, often lower beverage prices, and a net gain in jobs.

A study prepared at the behest of Gov. Hugh L. Carey, a longtime bottle-law foe, indicated benefits from such a measure would more than outweigh any drawbacks. This study, which included a projected net gain of 5,000 to 6,000 jobs in the Empire State, helped move the measure through the state Legislature.

Although still guardedly optimistic concerning the prospects for winning voter approval for next November's deposit-law proposals, leaders of the state organizations behind such efforts call New York's action very helpful.

''It is certainly a boost to our morale,'' says Tony Massaro of Coloradoans for Recycling, which collected more than 67,000 voter signatures, nearly double what was needed, to place a bottle-law proposal on his state's ballot.

State ballot campaigns involving bottle-law proposals have been among the nation's most costly, with proponents substantially outspent by the industry-funded opposition, notes Sandra Nelson of Environmental Action, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group against the throwaway containers.

Foes of the California initiative thus far have raised more than $1.5 million and are expected to raise much more for their campaign. ''There is no way we are going to be able to match them in money for media advertising,'' says Matt Kuzins, executive director of Californians Against Waste, which earlier this year collected more than 535,000 signatures statewide to bring the bottle-law proposal to the Nov. 2 ballot.

Although initiative petitions for such laws will be on the ballots of three Western states, Citizens for a Cleaner Washington have yet to meet a 139,000 minimum-signature requirement. Robert Swanson, the group's director, nevertheless is confident sufficient signatures will be found by the July 2 deadline.

Passage of the New York measure is of particular significance since it is the ninth state and the largest one with a mandatory deposit law. Similar laws are in effect in Oregon, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Iowa, and Connecticut. Delaware and Massachusetts laws will take effect Jan. 1 and Jan. 17, 1983, respectively.

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