By Dom Nozzi
When I was living in Gainesville FL in the early 1990s, a letter-to-the-editor appeared on the topic of the “bottle bill.” The Bottle Bill is legislation that would place a refundable deposit on bottles and cans to encourage such containers to be returned for reuse, rather than be littered or thrown into the garbage (and eventually the landfill.
The letter writer suggested that because Gainesville had established a successful curbside recycling program, a “bottle bill” was no longer needed and may actually hurt the curbside program.
Below are some reasons why I believe that a “bottle bill” remains a good idea despite a curbside recycling program being in place.
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 percent 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 in Gainesville:
Despite a successful curbside program, Gainesville’s roadsides and wooded areas are choked with the 30-50 percent of the bottles and cans not captured at curbside. And as our former Florida governor discovered, a casual stroll on ouronce-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 percent of all beverage containers are returned rather than landfilled or littered. (Overall litter rates go down 30-60 percent 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 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 Gainesville’s curbside program (70-80 percent 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 our community. It is naive to think our curbside participation will ever increase much above 80 percent of all citizens, and will instead probably fall below 80 percent once the current “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.
And don’t be fooled by beverage and container industry-funded campaigns such as “Keep America Beautiful” (KAB). Organizations such as KAB show very poor results in promoting container reuse or a reduction of litter. The main purpose of such industry-backed organizations is NOT to promote container reuse or reduce litter. The primary aim is to stop states from enacting “bottle bills” (by arguing that volunteer efforts such as KAB make “bottle bills” unnecessary). The fact that a large number of environmentalists and anti-litter activists support organizations such as KAB is evidence that industry backing of organizations such as KAB is meeting its goal of stopping “bottle bills.”
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
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