By Dom Nozzi
[Updated Jan 2009]
There are those who believe that because a community has established a successful curbside recycling program, a “bottle bill” is no longer needed and may actually hurt the curbside program. Below are some reasons why I believe that a “bottle bill” is still a good idea.
Compatibility. It is claimed that successful curbside programs collect a sufficient amount of recyclable containers, and that a “bottle bill” would therefore be redundant. However, curbside programs collect mostly household recyclables. When away from home, many people find it too inconvenient to carry garbage on their person, or store garbage in their cars or at their job location for later transfer to their household recycle bucket.
Instead, many will toss it in a nearby garbage can, or worse, litter. “Bottle bills,” which result in the recycling of approximately 90% of all beverage containers, is especially well-suited as a companion to a curbside program, which, at best, collects only 50-70% of the containers.
Litter. Because there is no economic incentive to do otherwise, and because it is somewhat inconvenient to carry around garbage until you find a garbage can or reach home, large numbers of people toss their beer bottles and soft drink cans on roadsides, beaches, and in creeks. The evidence bears this out: Despite a successful curbside program, the roadsides and wooded areas of most all communities are choked with the 30-50% of the bottles and cans not captured at curbside. And as a former governor in Florida discovered, a casual stroll on our once-pristine beaches is a testimony to our willingness to foul our nest with containers.
In “bottle bill” states, however, the financial incentive to return bottles and cans means that 90% of all beverage containers are returned rather than landfilled or littered. (Overall litter rates go down 30-60% after introduction of “bottle bills” in those states). And those containers that are littered are picked up by other people wanting the 5-cent refund for every container returned. (Without a “bottle bill”, the financial reward for picking up litter is either tiny or non-existent.)
Costs. It is claimed that curbside programs depend on revenues from the collected aluminum cans, and that because “bottle bills” remove such aluminum from the program, curbside programs are financially threatened by “bottle bills.” However, a Rhode Island study found that while a “bottle bill” would indeed reduce curbside revenues, communities still do better financially than if they just had a curbside program. The reason is that collection costs for garbage and recyclables are much lower with a “bottle bill.” These savings are much larger than the loss in revenue due to the removal of aluminum cans. Remember, too, that even if it did cost more to couple curbside recycling with the “bottle bill”, the goal of our waste management system is NOT to make money. Primarily, our goal is to keep garbage out of the landfills. States such as Oregon (with both curbside and a “bottle bill”) recognize this. After several years of both, they put less containers in landfills than states with curbside but without “bottle bills.”
Economic Incentive. The high participation rate of many curbside programs (up to 70-80% of all citizens) is due to the convenience of putting out the blue recycling bucket at the curb, and the large number of environmentally conscious citizens in many communities. It is naive to think curbside participation will ever increase much above 80% of all citizens, and will instead probably fall below 80% once the contemorary “Earth Day” fad subsides (as the ’70s “Oil Crisis” faded). Current and future citizens not using the curbside program are unlikely to recycle bottles and cans unless they are rewarded financially (“bottle bills” provide a 5 to 10-cent per container refund for returning containers). The wave of the future for protecting the environment, in other words, is not through annual “Earth Day” campaigns (which appeal mostly to those already prone to recycling, not those needing financial rewards). Environmental protection is much more comprehensive if we charge user fees, which convert large numbers of non-recyclers to recycling. Fees give non-recycling businesses and consumers the choice to pollute or litter, but only if they pay us money so we can clean up their mess. (If their mess is still too big, we charge an even higher fee to make it worth their while to stop polluting.) The “bottle bill” provides such an economic (user fee) incentive.
Education. In states that have had a “bottle bill” for several years, a noticeable “recycling ethic” has been created. While many people will not become recyclers due to TV ads or billboards advocating recycling, many of these same people will consider recycling if they are able to save (or make) money. As a result, they “learn” about the ease of recycling, and get into the habit of thinking about recycling on a daily or weekly basis. They therefore become more willing to recycle other items.
Note that by and large, it is the powerful beverage and container industries which oppose “bottle bills.” When such industries tell us they oppose “bottle bills” for environmental reasons, we can look at their track record and confidently assume their real motivation is to protect their huge profits — profits attained in part by filling up our landfills and littering our roadsides with their containers.
Adopting a bottle bill is important, and long overdue.
Postscript 2009: If the Obama administration seeks an effective, relatively inexpensive way to dramatically improve American litter problems, increase recycling rates, and put some money in the pockets of low-income (and other) Americans, there is little that makes more sense than a federal effort to require a nationwide Bottle Bill.
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