The Bottle Battle

2007 HAS SEEN A 50 PERCENT INCREASE in the number of recycling bills introduced in state legislatures. Many of the new bills include proposals to impose a nickel deposit on beer and soft drink bottles in those states without deposits. In the 11 states with deposits, the bills would increase the charge to a dime from a nickel or impose deposits on water and sport drink bottles.

Beverage container deposits are an intensely debated subject among recyclers. While deposits clearly increase the recycling rate for glass and plastic bottles, they create a problem for curbside collection programs. Unfortunately, the resulting debate often degenerates into an either/or argument instead of looking at how to combine the best attributes of both systems.

Our national recycling rate tripled in the last two decades as curbside recycling programs sprouted across the land. Yet recycling has stalled in the last few years. The problem, in part, is that curbside collection is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution for recycling.

If we have learned anything at all about curbside in the last two decades, we know that it is very effective at collecting recyclables from owner-occupied single family housing and less effective from rental housing. We still don't know how to collect recyclables from multi-family housing or from public areas. As an example of the latter case, every morning when I walk my two dogs on the local recreation field, I always carry a plastic bag to collect the water and sport drink bottles that litter the field. Even though I live in a county with a strong curbside recycling program, the bag is often full of empty bottles and cans when I return home. If I lived in a deposit state, I wouldn't need the extra bag.

When curbside programs started spreading dramatically in the late '80s, many of us argued that these programs needed the money from selling aluminum cans in order to have a revenue stream. At that time, the dramatic increase in recyclables led to zero or negative (i.e., a fee was charged) prices for newspapers and other recyclables, except aluminum cans. Today, even though aluminum can prices are at virtual all time highs, revenues from selling paper are far greater. Paper markets make or break a curbside program, not aluminum markets. That revenue argument is no longer valid.

However, another revenue argument has taken its place. In non-deposit states, processing facilities for curbside recyclables were built on assumptions about how many bottles and cans would be collected by those programs. Imposing a deposit on beverage containers in those states would immediately increase their per unit processing cost. A new deposit law in a non-deposit state must not harm the economics of those facilities.

California may offer a solution because its unique deposit law requires beverage manufacturers to pay a material specific “processing fee” to recyclers when the cost of recycling those containers is greater than their value. As a result, curbside programs have a unique revenue stream in the Golden State. Another positive attribute is that grocers do not have to store used containers on premises in that state.

Deposit states tend to have the highest recycling rates in America. This should be no surprise. Container deposits and curbside recycling programs are highly compatible. Working together, they can provide recycling the spark it needs to move forward.

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].