Saturday, December 10, 2011

Texas Bottle Bill

This is me with the bottles and cans I collected in only 30 minutes at Mankin's Crossing near Jonah, Texas.

Published in the Sun December 10, 2011

The historical marker at Mankin’s Crossing near Jonah says the low water bridge is “a popular recreational site for area residents.”  People like to fish there, but the most popular recreation at the site appears to be beer-drinking, or maybe beer-drinking while fishing.  I recently travelled to Mankin’s Crossing to satisfy my curiosity about roadside litter and how it might be affected by the Texas Bottle Bill, otherwise known as the Texas Container Recycling Initiative.  Readers of a certain maturity will remember that long before recycling was a household word, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks used to be sold in glass bottles.  You would drink your six-pack of Cokes and then take the bottles back to the grocery store to be reimbursed a few pennies a bottle for your trouble.  The Coca Cola company would collect the empties and refill the sterilized bottles with another delicious cane sugar beverage.  The bottles would be used over and over again until they were too scuffed to be appetizing.  Beer was sold this way also.

But then in the 1960s aluminum cans and plastic bottles came along.  Now the beverage companies could bottle their wares more cheaply, and not worry about all that nasty collecting and cleaning and trucking back to the factory.  The bottles were labeled “No deposit, no return” to inform the consumer that it was OK to just throw it away.  And throw them away we did.  This year alone, almost 120 billion beverage containers have been littered, landfilled, and incinerated in the United States, about twice as many as have been recycled.  Beverage containers make up about 40 to 60% of all roadside litter.

Bottle bills resurrect the practice of redeeming empty beverage containers for a deposit refund, but these days the used containers are recycled rather than refilled.  All beer, carbonated sodas, sports drinks, and bottled water are covered, whether made of aluminum, plastic, or glass.  Ten states currently have bottle bills.  The bill proposed for Texas would work like this.  Beverage distributors would charge retailers 5 cents per container, a fee the retailer would then pass on to the consumer.  At this point the distributor has an extra 5 cents per beverage, which is contributed to a special fund.  The consumer is out one nickel, but he will get that nickel back if he chooses to return the can or bottle to a neighborhood redemption center.  The redemption center will be reimbursed 5 cents, plus a one and a half cent handling fee by an independent board that is financed by all those nickels collected from the distributors.  It is only fair after all, that since the distributors are the ones making money on all the drinks they sell, they should bear some responsibility for disposing of the waste, rather than shifting the entire burden of clean-up to city and state governments.  Since not all containers will be redeemed there will be enough nickels to cover those handling fees.  The redemption center is also allowed to keep all proceeds from the sale of the recyclable materials.  These proceeds can be significant, especially in the case of aluminum cans, which can fetch 60 or 65 cents a pound.  Redemption centers could be run by independent businesses, retailers, municipalities, or even churches and schools.

Last month the US Senate, in an almost unbelievable moment of bipartisanship, unanimously passed Senate Resolution 251, which “expresses support for improvement in the collection, processing, and consumption of recyclable material throughout the United States in order to create well-paying jobs, foster innovation and investment in the United States recycling infrastrtucture, and stimulate the economy of the United States.”  But this is a resolution; it doesn’t actually do anything.  To do something actual bills are needed.  The Texas Bottle Bill will be introduced to the state legislature in 2013.

States with bottle bills have decreased their container litter by as much as 80% and have increased recycling rates above levels achieved with curbside recycling alone.  Most provinces in Canada have bottle bills, and they achieve remarkable recycling rates with deposits as high as 20 cents.  Michigan’s bottle bill created jobs for 4684 people in the redemption industry, New York added 3800 jobs.

In addition to creating jobs, reducing litter, and saving resources and energy, the adoption of a bottle bill transforms empty beverage containers from trash to treasure.  People with time on their hands will start gathering bottles that others have discarded in order to collect the deposits.  People who do this a lot are called “canners.”  And that brings me back to Mankin’s Crossing.  I wanted to see how many deposits a motivated canner could gather up in a short time.  Armed only with a large trash sack and a pair of gloves, in thirty minutes flat I collected 21 glass beer bottles, 19 plastic bottles, and 52 aluminum cans.  That would be four dollars and sixty cents in deposits, if Texas had a bottle bill.  Had I been willing to wade into the cold water I could have snagged at least ten more cans.

By the way, the fishermen at Mankin’s Crossing prefer Bud Light.