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Elizabeth Royte
where does it all go?

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Scrapping over Nickels
Thursday, Mar 11, 2004 (11:13 AM)

I went to Washington the other day and heard EPA administrator Mike Leavitt, among other speakers, address the Garden Club of America. Standing at the front of the ornately decorated caucus room of the Cannon House Office Building, Leavitt was bland but amiable. He filled his allotted time with anecdotes and positive spinning on the Bush Administration's environmental record. He admitted he didn't have all the answers to today's environmental problems, but look how far we'd come! Then he told a story about the bad old days in Salt Lake City, where he lived. "We'd drink a soda and just toss the can into the trash." He paused, wide-eyed. "Today, we've got a curbside program for recycling, and it's free!"

Well, not really. Sending trucks and crews around cities costs plenty of taxpayer dollars. Recycling routes are usually longer than those for household waste, simply because it takes workers a longer distance to fill up their trucks. It's possible for a municipality to earn revenue from selling scrap metal and paper, but plastic and glass are usually money losers. (Which isn't to say collecting them is unimportant. Making plastic from plastic, and glass from glass, uses far less energy than working with virgin materials. For more information read this discussion of recycling's benefits.)

While Leavitt was glad-handing in Washington, lobbyists for the bottling industry and supermarket chains were duking it out with recycling advocates on the New York State Assembly floor. My state's Bottle Bill - in which consumers pay an extra nickel upon buying a beer or soft drink, then get their money back when they return the container to the store for recycling - had passed more than twenty years ago. But nearly every year since then, one group or another has tried to repeal or amend the law. This year, environmentalists were once again staking a claim to the nickels that accumulate when consumers fail to redeem their containers. The nickels currently go to beverage distributors: environmentalists want them for running curbside programs. The amount at stake isn't insignificant: unclaimed deposits add up to between $85 and $140 million a year. Since 1982, beverage distributors have pocketed a total of more than $1 billion in orphaned nickels. If legislation proposed by Assemblyman Thomas P. DiNapoli to include deposits on sports drinks, juices, and other hugely popular "New Age" beverages is passed, an additional $30 million a year could be up for grabs.

Who could argue with an expanded container deposit law? It would keep more litter off the streets and beaches (beverage containers, according to the Container Recycling Institute, comprise forty to sixty percent of litter). It would keep solid waste from landfills, conserve natural resources through recycling, and direct money to recycling programs. Well, grocery store operators, to name one group, aren't excited about a bigger Bottle Bill. They'd have to devote even more storage space to beverage containers and hire employees to handle them. Distributors aren't thrilled about the proposal either, since they're already paying a two-and-a-half-cent-per-container fee to stores. Waste haulers and the owners of "materials recovery facilities" (MRFs), where the stuff collected at curbside is sorted and baled for resale, don't like container deposit laws either: they want to sell those aluminum cans themselves.

Over the years, the packaging, food, and petrochemical industries have quietly spent tens of millions of dollars fighting Bottle Bills (often at the same time that they're very publicly promoting recycling). These groups argue that curbside and drop-off recycling programs make deposit laws obsolete. But environmentalists say Bottle Bills and curbside programs complement each other, and that one can help fund the other. Because the stream of PET soda bottles redeemed in Bottle Bill states is cleaner and purer than bottles collected curbside, it's more likely to be transformed into T-shirts, carpets and fleece. This is called "closing the loop," and it's the whole point of recycling. Curbside containers are often heavily contaminated with food and other material: rejected at the MRF, they're renamed "residue" and shipped off to a landfill or incinerator.

The ladies of the Garden Club clapped politely for Mike Leavitt, and at Q&A time one asked him pointblank why we'd just dumped hundreds of plastic water bottles and aluminum cans into trash barrels lining the caucus room of a lawmakers' building at the center of the nation's capital. If any public space ought to be setting an example, she implied, it was this one. Washington, D.C. has a curbside program, but beverage containers mingled with lunch scraps and coffee grounds surely weren't headed there. "Well, we do it over at the EPA," Leavitt said, shrugging. And that was all he'd say.

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Past Entries
03/02 Rising from the Dead
03/05 Less than Barren
03/08 New York's Strongest
03/11 Scrapping over Nickels
03/15 Let it Burn?