Why Pennsylvanians should demand a deposit-return on beverage containers

Only a week has passed since The Express published the first part of my series, How big is your ecological footprint? Five simple steps to protect Pennsylvania’s natural beauty.

The series sought to encourage readers to actively participate in Pennsylvania’s environmental protection by presenting suggestions that could be incorporated in their daily routine.

One of the feedback comments I received addressed an attractive idea I would like to discuss in this article: A deposit on beverage containers, which has not been supported by enough Pennsylvania state representatives so far.

While every single one of us plays an essential role in environmental protection, it needs to be emphasized that the government’s role is, of course, highly important as well.

The government has the ability and the responsibility to provide us with programs that allow us to purse active environmental protection more easily.

LOBBY POWER

Unfortunately, as we have seen in the gas and food industry, lobbying and power interests dominate our country. But we as consumers do have some power too, for example, in the purchasing choices we make. We need to show the government that our interests as caring citizens should be more important than those of corporations.

If we want Pennsylvania to remain as beautiful as it is now, we should expect the government to support us in pursing this goal.

Citizens of other U.S. states have demanded the establishment of a container deposit-return (CDR) program. It was not easy, but they have been persistent and successful. Maryland is in the midst of the fight. We should be fighting, as well.

As we have seen in the second part of the series, reducing waste is one of the most effective ways of protecting our environment. Despite being so popular, studies suggest that bottled water, being regulated less rigorously, is not any healthier or safer than cheaper tap water that could be poured into reusable BPA-free containers, such as the Nalgene wide mouth, multi-colored water bottles, which would save a lot of resources and significantly reduce litter.

If you are concerned about the safety of your water, have it analyzed to learn if and what type of treatment it needs. For more information on tap water, visit www.foodsafety.wisc.edu/consumer/fact-sheets/waterbottles.pdf.

But since most people’s “beverage menu” includes more than only water, we need to find an effective disposal solution for soda, alcohol, and juice containers as well.

Some readers might be skeptical about the purpose or benefits of a CDR program. This article aims to address this and other issues, and to show that the benefits of such a program would actually be a significant step toward a healthier Pennsylvania.

Before the 1930s, refillable glass bottles were used dozens of times before being discarded. When the steel beverage can revolutionized the market and non-refillable bottles exploded after World War II, environmentalists began proposing mandatory refundable deposits for those containers. The first so-called bottle bill requiring refundable deposits on beverage containers was passed in Oregon in 1971.

Until today, California, Connecticut, Guam, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Vermont have enacted bottle bills as well. Not only has the law led to significantly less litter and has decreased the waste diversion to landfills, but while states without the bill recycle at about 25 percent, CDR states have a recycling success rate between 67 and 97 percent. In fact, Michigan, at this whopping 97 percent success rate, ranks number one – being followed by Maine with 90 percent – and its bottle bill is considered to be one of the state’s most successful current programs in environmental protection.

Forty to 60 percent of our litter contains beverage containers.

One third of our beverages are consumed outside of homes or restaurants and often end up in our regular trash or on our streets. I invite you to take a walk through your community on a Sunday afternoon. Now that the leaves have become so colorful, you may find it an enjoyable stroll. Most likely you will find some soda cans or plastic bottles that have not found their way into public waste bins. Also, look inside these bins and see for yourself how many items could have been recycled.

One of the most important benefits of CDR programs is that they “encourage” people to return them, especially those people who do not regularly pursue recycling, thus causing less litter and municipal waste disposal, and thus saving tax money. Furthermore, such programs provide additional disposal opportunities that would allow all of us to participate in recycling more easily.

Like in Michigan, glass bottles, plastic containers, and aluminum cans could be returned at numerous drop-off locations, supporting people on the go, either at a redemption center and its retail operations or at a grocery store while shopping. Michigan stores must accept all clean, clearly labeled deposit containers if the store sells that beverage, even if the items being returned were not bought at that particular store. However, only containers with a Michigan bar code label may be returned. It is illegal to return bottles purchased in another state since no deposit was originally paid on those containers in Michigan.

Although all deposit containers carry a specific state label, fraud is indeed a disadvantage of CDR programs. Sadly, given the world in which we live, a certain amount of fraud will always occur. But we need to weigh the risk of fraud against all of the benefits recycling provides, and, based on the success rates in Michigan and other states, the benefits of deposit containers are much greater.

OPPORTUNITIES

New businesses and hundreds or even thousands of jobs in retail, distribution, and recycling could be created through CDR programs. A 2012 study commissioned by the Container Recycling Institute indicates that such programs offer 11 to 38 times more jobs than curbside recycling systems. In addition, CDR programs employ 7.34 full-time employees per 1,000 tons of containers on average, while curbside systems employ just 1.66 full-time employees using an automated system and 4.46 using a manual system.

Another benefit of a CDR program would be to shift recycling, waste disposal, and litter cleanup costs from the government and the taxpayers to the producers and to those people who purchase the beverages.

It is claimed that Michigan’s incredible success rate is due to its high deposit rate of 10 cents per container, while other states charge only 5 cents. That deposit would then be reimbursed 100 percent upon the containers’ return. Unclaimed refunds could be used for state environmental programs.

In Michigan, for instance, 25 percent of unclaimed refunds go to retailers, while the state uses the other 75 percent for litter cleanup and educational programs on pollution prevention or toxic material disposal.

If Pennsylvania enacted a CDR program, what would actually happen to deposit containers?

There are so-called one-way containers, which make up the vast majority, and rare refillable containers.

One-way containers become either new beverage containers or new products entirely, thus significantly reducing the need for virgin resources. According to the Maryland bottle bill campaign, reaching an aluminum recycling rate of 75 percent would, in fact, provide sufficient aluminum to build 850 single-aisle airplanes each year! In addition, millions of metric tons (1 metric ton is approximately 2,205 pounds) of carbon dioxide emissions could also be avoided.

Refillable containers, in contrast, would be an even healthier option.

REFILLABLE

GLASS BOTTLES

Canada has returned to a tradition of past times when every American family used to get its morning milk delivered in a refillable glass bottle. The Canadian beer industry uses refillable bottles up to 20 times. They are the least expensive option and show a success return rate of nearly 100 percent.

The Beer Store, a privately owned chain of retail outlets, as well as the Ontario Deposit Return Program diverted over 450,000 tons of alcohol containers from Ontario landfills in 2011.

They saved almost 3 million gigajoules of energy (1 gigajoule is about 277,778 watt hours) and avoided approximately 205,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which equals the emissions of over 40,000 cars in one year. In addition, taxpayers saved about $40 million in waste management costs for keeping the beverage containers out of regular litter and recycling bins.

Pennsylvania can achieve this as well. Demanding deposit containers will be a crucial step in the right direction, followed by an expansion of refillable bottles.

History has shown that enforcing change is hard but possible if we stand together. The time for a more environmentally friendly Pennsylvania has come. If we do not act now, our current disposal practices will eventually harm ourselves and the ones we love. I invite you to inform yourself about the U.S. bottle bills and those around the world at www.bottlebill.org.

Spread the word and tell your friends about the bill’s benefits and the significance of refillable bottles.

Participate in the Pennsylvania Bottle Bill Campaign and sign their petition: www.campaignforrecycling.org/states/pennsylvania/campaigns.

Email or call our state representatives.

Express your demand publically in a letter to the editor.

If a high number of us participate, a clear signal will be sent.

So far, it is only a dream.

But all changes begin with a dream.

The United States is the country where dreams come true.

Will this dream be one of them?

Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has been a resident of Lock Haven for the past four years and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. Please send feedback or questions to ribitsch@lycoming.edu.