A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 1, 1999
CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240
LET'S NOT CAN THE BOTTLE LAW JUST YET
Foreign visitors to the great state of Massachusetts must be puzzled
when buying a can of soda here. On the top of the can they probably notice
a suspicious string of letters that read: "ME VT MA CT NY." Upon seeing
this, our foreign guests might think they have intercepted a top secret
message being transmitted in the form of an innocent soft drink. Of course,
they will soon find out that all soda cans bear the same "code," and it
will neither give them Pentagon access nor disclose locations of secret
military bases. No, the only thing that the code will do is give our
guests a nickel when they redeem their can at the counter.
Our state is among several with container deposit laws. Cognizant of
mounting environmental problems, state legislators worked with public
interest groups in 1981 to create the "Bottle Law." The logic of the
legislation was that those who made the waste should pay for it. The
Bottle Law is designed to prevent littering and reduce the volume of trash
going to our landfills and/or incinerators. Litter costs taxpayers
thousands of dollars and often causes injuries (especially to children who
cut themselves on broken bottles). Landfills are problematic because they
waste valuable public property and sometimes contaminate local groundwater.
Incinerators, especially older ones, produce dioxins and other airborne
pollutants that can pose serious health risks to citizens.
After almost 17 years under the law, Massachusetts has benefited
enormously. Reports show that roadside litter was reduced by 35%, beverage
container litter was cut by 70%, and litter-related injuries were decreased
by 60%. We now recycle over 35% of the 12 billion pounds of garbage
generated annually. Deposit containers have a return rate of 70-80%,
compared to 15-20% for all others. That amounts to about 1.5 billion
containers kept out of the trash each year, saving municipalities
substantial amounts of money. In total, over 2 million tons of reusable
materials are remanufactured each year as recycled products, sustaining 12,
000 well-paying jobs and promoting $600 million in investments.
Despite these successes, there is a new industry-backed bill (H.4552)
that is trying to "can" the Bottle Law. The beverage industry (a group that
had vehemently opposed the original bottle bill in the early 80s) argues
that the law is flawed and therefore must be eliminated. While the Bottle
Law may need some updating, adopting the overhaul environmental legislation
supported by the beverage industry is probably not in the public interest.
Improving the Bottle Law
One way to enhance the law would be to update it to account for the
tastes of the modern consumer. In the past decade, "new age" drinks like
iced tea and bottled water have increased 1200% and yet, do not require
deposits. We are aware of this fact and have attempted over the years to
expand the law to cover these items. Another improvement would be to adopt
new technologies and regulations to reduce fraud in the redemption process.
Although fraud is a relatively minor expense to taxpayers (and offset by
unclaimed deposit revenues), prevention measures would benefit taxpayers
and bottlers alike.
We must also address the issue of beverage business lost to other
states. Many legislators advocating H.4552 come from districts near the
New Hampshire border and claim to have initiated legislation on behalf of
small businesses. We should not abandon these retailers, as their claims
may be valid, but we also must not engage in an environmental "race to the
bottom" with states that have lenient laws. In any case, we must remember
that the beverage industry -not "mom and pop" convenient stores- pushed for
this legislation and it must be viewed in this light.
Bottle Law vs. Municipal Recycling
The heart of the debate is the apparent conflict between the
redemption system and municipal recycling programs. The beverage industry
posits that having two systems is inefficient and unnecessary. Recent
improvements in "curbside" municipal recycling, they note, has made the
Bottle Law obsolete.
This claim fails to consider a number of factors. Studies show that
about half of all waste is produced away from one's home. We throw trash
away at home, in school, at work, and in public places (where recycling
programs are sometimes sparse). In addition, we are more likely to
consume "single-serve" containers away from home, especially when we are on
the road (where cans and bottles made up a very high percentage of litter).
Although we could certainly boost recycling efforts in public places like
parks and stadiums, the Bottle Law is currently the only thing preventing
people from tossing things in the trash or out the window when they are
away from home.
If we were to rely solely on municipal programs, we would see a
dramatic reduction in recycling. As noted, 80% of deposit containers are
returned as opposed to 20% of non-deposit containers. More bottles and
cans would simply end up in incinerators and landfills.
We could adopt "pay per throw" measures as did Worcester, where people
pay $.50 per trash bag. This program boosted recycling in that city from
3% to 36% in one month, and it is now at 55%. This does an excellent job
in the reduction of garbage produced from residences (where container sizes
are often larger), but it still does not account for waste produced when we
are away from home. Perhaps if we combined "pay per throw" with a
strengthened Bottle Law, we could top the charts in statewide recycling.
Revoking the Bottle Law would create an enormous loophole for the
beverage industry. There would be no incentive to reduce packaging and
create reusable containers, since the burden of disposal would be unfairly
shifted to the taxpayers at large. We would see an increase in littering
and a decrease in recycling, reversing everything that has been done in the
last 17 years. While some may have identified the shortcomings of the law,
the proper solution is to address these issues through amendments. Let's
improve the Bottle Law, not throw it out the window.