On April 31, 2002 the Hawaii House and Senate approved legislation that establishes a refundable 5-cent deposit on beverage containers. If signed by the governor, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to adopt a “bottle bill” in 16 years. This development should be of interest to Canadian recyclers and policymakers, coming as it does amidst other recent container recycling initiatives south of the border.
That Hawaii should endorse a bottle bill comes as no surprise. Litter is a high-profile issue for the popular tourist destination and the islands lack landfill space for the huge quantities of cans and bottles discarded by visitors. The government wasn’t swayed by industry’s alternative plan that relied on curbside recycling alone to get the job done.
According to Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter, “Some 800 million beverage containers are used in Hawaii annually. On average, 75,000 are thrown in the trash every hour statewide. States with bottle bills recycle over 80 per cent of their beverage containers, while Hawaii currently recycles only about 20 per cent.”
Back on the mainland, on April 22 U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords (Vermont) proposed a federal performance standard to achieve a national 80 per cent recycling rate via a 10-cent refundable deposit. The legislation would require that beverage producers, not government, design the system. Interestingly, British Columbia’s approach was cited as a possible model.
Hawaii’s initiative and Senator Jeffords’ proposal come in the tailwind of research released on January 16, 2002 which shows that the ten U.S. bottle-bill states recycle more beverage containers than the 40 non-deposit states combined, at virtually no cost to taxpayers. (States with deposit laws are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont.)
The research report Understanding Beverage Container Recovery was produced for Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling (BEAR) by a consulting team led by R.W. Beck, Inc. BEAR is a multistakeholder coalition dedicated to using credible data and meaningful consultation to break through the historic impasse between the beverage industry and environmentalists in order to figure out the most efficient and cost-effective options for increased beverage container recovery. A wide variety of interests are represented. BEAR members include recyclers and processors such as Waste Management Inc., advocacy groups such as the Container Recycling Institute and a coalition known as the GrassRoots Recycling Network, and other stakeholders such as Coca-Cola.
The report is the first of three stages in the Multi-Stakeholder Recovery Project (MSRP). It concluded that recovery rates are likely to steadily decline in future years in the absence of new recovery and market development initiatives. In 1999 roughly 192 billion beverage containers were generated in the United States of which 78 billion were recycled and the rest disposed. Recycling rates have stagnated or in some cases declined in recent years. Reasons include the growth of PET containers (especially single-serve beverages consumed away from the home), maturation of curbside programs and the declining relative value of deposit amounts (i.e., a nickel is worth less today than ten or twenty years ago). A breakdown of recycling rates by material is telling: aluminum can rates (a high-value material) are between 50 and 60 per cent; glass containers are in the mid-30 per cent range. Plastic bottles are stuck just above a dismal 20 per cent level.
The report found that traditional bottle bill states have the highest recovery rates with an average of 78 per cent. Michigan (with its 10-cent deposit) has the highest rate at 95 per cent; Massachusetts the lowest at 72 per cent. California, which has a unique system, captures only about 54 per cent of containers, but its system has the lowest costs. Curbside programs in non-deposit states, by comparison, recover only 18.5 per cent of containers and are more expensive. When the money is factored in from the sale of recycled materials and deposits left in the system by consumers who choose not to redeem their containers for refund, deposit programs are less costly than curbside programs. States with deposit systems recover 125 containers per dollar spent while curbside programs recover only 58 containers per dollar spent. The MSRP is examining further efficiencies that may be achieved via the increased use of reverse-vending machines, not requiring containers to be sorted by brand, and other refinements. The MSRP is also looking at how deposit systems and curbside collection or drop-off programs can re-enforce one another. (See letter, page 5, article, page 6.)
Predictably the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) issued a press release on the same day of the BEAR report, stating that it is flawed and riddled with bias in a “transparent effort to make bottle bills more attractive to policymakers.” A flurry of further news releases ensued in which the BEAR team and the NSDA’s consultants critiqued each other’s data. It’s a well-worn axiom in the deposits versus curbside recycling debate that you can “make the data say anything you want.” But the BEAR report appears credible and this time around the soft-drink industry’s objections sound shrill and unpersuasive.
Whether or not Hawaii’s bottle bill or Senator Jeffords’ national proposal are ratified, with more and more plastic bottles and other containers going to landfill, and information such as that contained in the BEAR report coming out, it seems inevitable that innovative refundable deposit programs will become an increasingly attractive mechanism to policymakers over time.
For more information, look under the “posted documents” section of our Internet site www.solidwastemag.com.
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine.
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