In Support of the Bottle Bill

“Waste not, want not” reflects little of the ways of corporate industry. These waste-makers have filled too many dumps and landfills with disposable containers, designed too many vehicles, buildings and appliances to be energy gluttons, and generally inflicted too much product obsolescence on the consuming public.

But in one area, the rebellion against can and bottle litter is gaining momentum and winning in more states, despite the millions of dollars thrown against this legislation by the beverage industry. The bottle bill, as it is called, is now law in Oregon, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Iowa and Connecticut. A new Massachusetts law, yet to go into effect, is being challenged once again by corporate opponents.

While these laws vary in detail, they have one principle in common–that beer and soft drink containers be returnable for a deposit. The goal, by encouraging recycling, is to reduce litter and injuries from broken glass or jagged cans, save energy, reduce the need for spending tax revenues to pick up litter, save consumers money and result in a net increase in employment. Sounds overambitious? Well, the experience in the states where the law has had time to work is stunningly successful.

Total litter volume has declined by 45 percent in Oregon, 35 percent in Vermont, 40 percent in Maine and Michigan, and 38 percent in Iowa. Container litter is cut by about 80 percent in these states. Wayne County, Michigan, parks superintendent Edwin Mika put it this way: “If ‘fantastic’ were a valid word in statistics, it would best describe the reduction in litter.”

A new, comprehensive survey report of can and bottle laws, issued by the California Public Interest Research Group (2490 Channing Way, Berkeley, Calif. 94704–$8 per copy for individuals), demonstrates the beneficial results of frugality. A national deposit law would produce an equivalent saving of more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day. Each year,111 billion gallons of water would not have to be used. At the retail level, soft drinks and beer cost anywhere from 20 to 39 percent more in disposable bottles than in recycled ones. A national law would bring a net increase of about 57,000 jobs.

Because the deposit, usually a nickel, creates a market for returning bottles and cans, the material incentive dramatically increases recycling rates. Currently, only about 4 percent of all steel cans, 5 percent of all glass bottles and 25 percent of all aluminum cans are being recycled. But in deposit law states, 88 to 93 percent of all steel cans, 91 to 96 percent of all glass bottles and 88 to 97 percent of all aluminum cans are being reused or recycled, according to the research group’s report.

Public opinion polls repeatedly have registered very high support for bottle bills. These polls are not conducted in a vacuum but in the framework of a media barrage of beverage industry (like Coca-Cola) propaganda trying to persuade people that these deposit measures will cost jobs, raise the price of drinks and not reduce litter. The polls start with 73 percent of the public supporting a federal deposit law, an even higher percentage (83 percent in California) supporting state legislation, and in states with such laws the support is even higher (91 percent in Oregon and 93 percent in Vermont).

Nonetheless, the Coca-Cola forces keep pouring money into anti-bottle bill drives–$6 million at least will be spent to defeat a November referendum in California. However, the tide is turning against the lobbyists for a disposable economy. The New York State legislature has just passed a bottle bill and sent it to Gov. Hugh Carey to sign. The “big state” battleground, until recently the mainstay of the beverage industry’s strength, is beginning to crack under better-organized citizen efforts.

Some of these citizens show more than a philosophic dislike of waste and litter. In California alone, there were 300,000 litter-related injuries in 1976. One state reported to the National Safety Council in the mid-1970s a total of 621 accidents caused by vehicles striking or swerving to avoid litter. People remember when their tire strikes a bottle or a dented can.

A 10-year-old girl once quizzically asked: “Why do we make bottles and then smash them?” Good question. Some day, while most glass bottles and cans are recycled, we can ask why more soft drink bottles are made of non-degradable plastic that presents serious solid waste disposal problems.

Small questions have a tendency to lead a society to larger answers. The evolution of recycling is no exception to this truth.

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