A March 15 BDN editorial opposing a modest change to the bottle bill revealed a misunderstanding about how recycling works, and no understanding about the benefits of the proposal. BDN readers deserve a better explanation.
The bottle bill passed as a litter control measure 40 years ago, when the BDN was printed with lead-based ink, there were open burning dumps and no one had heard of single-stream recycling.
Over time, the bottle bill morphed into a recycling program for beverage containers. When it was expanded to include juice and water in the late 1980s, few towns had begun recycling programs. Nearly everything was being landfilled, at significant cost to municipalities and the environment. Using the bottle bill to process beverage containers was the only available option.
Today’s landscape, though, is different. Everyone in Maine has access to municipal recycling programs that accept household products made of many different materials. Once sorted, these materials are sold and used in the production of new products, generating revenue for the municipality. Ninety-nine percent of our industry’s deposit containers are made from plastic or aluminum, materials that generate some of the highest revenue per pound for municipal recycling.
Additionally, more Maine communities are moving toward single-stream curbside recycling. It’s simple, convenient and, when combined with pay-as-you throw incentives, can revolutionize how we recycle. According to Casella Resource Solutions, when Brewer and Old Town implemented these changes, they reduced the amount of trash they sent to PERC by nearly 50 percent.
By contrast, the bottle bill is limited. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, beverage containers make up only 4 percent of the municipal waste stream. It’s inconvenient. You have to separate beverage containers from other household recyclable items and drive them to a redemption center. It’s expensive. Maine distributors — and, ultimately, Maine consumers — pay a handling fee on every container. Based upon figures from the Maine Department of Agriculture, that’s about $35 million annually.
So we thought it would make sense to move large containers out of the bottle bill and recycle them for much less through municipal systems. Large containers don’t constitute a threat to roadside litter, and they are made of material that generates revenue for municipal recycling programs.
That’s not all. Recognizing that recycling programs in some communities are not as good as others, the proposal placed a half-cent recycling fee on every large container for five years. Instead of a handling fee, nearly $2 million would be directed toward municipalities to increase recycling rates for all materials, not just beverage containers.
The BDN thinks this is a “disaster” and claims that large containers would end up in landfills. The results in Brewer and Old Town demonstrate exactly the opposite. In the right system, people will put large containers in their recycle bin — with all other paper and packaging — not in their trash.
Moreover, the BDN ignored the beneficial impact of the additional investment in municipal recycling. Admittedly, the recycling rate for large containers may drop initially from 75 percent to 40 percent, but those containers represent a fraction — 0.003 — of the total waste stream. By contrast, a grant of $50,000 to pay for a compactor or an education program that raises the overall recycling rate in one small town by just 5 percent could make up that loss — in six months.
We believe it’s good policy to increase investment in municipal programs that improve efforts to recycle all materials. We know it’s bad policy to keep wasting time and money processing large containers through the bottle bill. We don’t need a deposit on those items anymore.
The Legislature hasn’t yet acquired the wisdom to implement this proposal. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously voted it down last month without any discussion, no doubt intimidated by the massive cottage industry the bottle bill has spawned — redemption centers, bottle processing companies and the environmental groups that solicit contributions from them. They make money from the bottle bill, and they will oppose any change that reduces their take, even if it’s better for the environment.
That unholy alliance may have defeated the large container bill this year. But as technology continues to advance and recycling becomes more affordable and efficient — maybe not in Maine, but certainly in other states — the bottle bill becomes even more expensive and antiquated. If we are truly interested in improving our recycling rate, we’ll be hard pressed to find a better proposal than this one.
Newell Augur is the executive director of the Maine Beverage Association.