Washington looks for a way to bottle up litter

THERE'S a lot of clinking and clanking in the nation's capital these days. And it's not all over United States Supreme Court nominations or US policy in the Persian Gulf.

Some of it is over empties.

Environmentalists in Washington are hotly pursuing the passage of a bottle bill initiative on the Nov. 3 District of Columbia ballot. If passed, the measure would require a 5 cent deposit on returnable receptacles. The idea, of course, is to get consumers to bring back their bottles and cans for recycling. The basic aim, proponents explain, is to reduce litter and solid waste.

The National Clearinghouse for Deposit Legislation, principal backer of the measure, admits, however, that theirs is an uphill fight.

The big factor: money. Environmental advocates are being heavily outspent by the opponents of the legislation, mainly the beverage and beverage-container industries.

Jeanne Wirka, of the clearinghouse group, reports that those campaigning against the bottle bill in the district now boast more than $1 million in their coffers. Supporters, on the other hand, have raised a relatively meager $50,000.

Opponents argue that bottle legislation doesn't achieve what it sets out to do.

They hold that litter is not substantially reduced; redemption doesn't necessarily lead to recycling; and the cost and bother to industry aren't worth the trouble.

In addition, small tradesmen in the area - especially those whose stores are close to the Maryland or Virginia border - are concerned that many customers would take their business to those places rather than pay higher prices for returnable-bottle goods in the district.

Nine states have laws similar to the one being proposed in the district. Oregon passed the first bottle legislation in 1971 - and was followed by Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, Iowa, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New York.

A few others have tried and failed - largely because of financially well-heeled campaigns by industry opponents.

California recently enacted what is, in effect, a compromise law that reimburses consumers a token penny for returning their soft drink containers and beer cans - but relieves retailers of the responsibility of taking back empties.

Instead, large grocery chains must make sure there is a state-certified recycling center within half a mile of their businesses. These centers are required to pay consumers scrap value in addition to the penny refund for empty beverage containers.

California's recycling law also provides that makers of plastic, glass, and metal containers pay processing fees if the scrap value falls below the recycling cost.

Some claim this will raise prices for scrap materials and perhaps even prod manufacturers to develop more easily recycled plastic bottles. Opponents of the law, which went into effect Oct. 1, have insisted that the 1 cent reimbursement will not be a sufficient incentive to encourage consumers to recycle.

Meanwhile, other states - including Florida and Minnesota, which have bottle bills on their drawing boards - are closely watching the fate of the Washington, D.C., measure.

Passage could also have an effect on national lawmakers who live in the district when Congress is in session - and might be sold the idea to take back home.

Oregon's landmark bottle bill law was 15 years old this month. And some industry spokesmen are still grumbling that it places an unfair burden on them. Most state officials say, however, that it has been a smashing success in terms of reducing litter and solid waste.

Bill Bree of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was recently quoted as saying: ``The [public] attitude changed quickly from a no-deposit, no-return, no-responsibility attitude to treating beverage containers as valuable.''

Returnable bottles may be a burden to business and a nuisance to consumers. But they are worth the trouble if the result is a cleaner, less cluttered environment.

A Thursday column

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