Bottle tax would be better as bottle deposit

Next Maryland governor should take another look

May 27, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

I will bet a bialy breakfast at Goldberg's that Baltimore's battle over the bottle tax — 4 cents per bottle of beverage (excluding milk and juice) sold in the city to raise $11 million for city services — pretty much ended with that City Council hearing featuring senior citizens on canes and in wheelchairs.

Eight members of the council might have held hands with the beverage industry for a while, but when senior citizens rally for their recreation programs and predict dire consequences from budget cuts — "They'll just be sitting in their apartments waiting to die," one of them said — the anti-tax lobbyists can pretty much kiss their support goodbye.

It's not just the guilt trip suggested in baby boomers cutting services to what remains of the Greatest Generation. A rule of councilmanic politics is in play: You don't mess with Golden Age clubs.

Rikki Spector was the first to come to her senses. The longtime councilwoman, among the Bottled Eight who opposed the 4-cent tax last week, said she had to "rethink" her position. So I will bet a grand-slam breakfast at Jimmy's that others do the same and the bottle bill passes.

It's just too bad we're talking about a tax and not a deposit.

A deposit on bottles would make a lot more sense, though it wouldn't achieve the purpose of the tax, which is to raise revenues for the city. Instead, a deposit would raise revenues for citizens and nonprofits while augmenting the efforts already being made to recycle glass and plastic.

I'm not talking about anything exotic here. To the contrary, the bottle deposit system is logical and relatively simple.

I will bet a lovely brunch at Tersiguel's that most Marylanders would support a bottle deposit system if it were proposed by the next governor.

In case you've never heard of bottle deposits, they exist in 10 states. Every bottle of soda and beer (and, in some places, water, flavored water and juice) that goes into the massive consumer market has a value of at least a nickel. The deposit provides an incentive for the bottle's return and reuse.

The bottle deposit system works right alongside curbside recycling programs. Recyclables cover a wide array of items these days, from plastic peanut butter jars to those small, black trays supermarkets use for rotisserie chicken.

The deposits are specifically on bottles.

While many millions of bottles make it into the recycling stream, many millions don't. Anyone who has ever seen Baltimore's Inner Harbor after a big rain can tell you that. Let's face it: We've cleaned up our act in this country, but far from completely. We are still overwhelmed with plastic and glass bottles. Bottles are everywhere because people carry them everywhere, and the ones that don't end up in the trash (and landfills) end up in gutters and alleys, on vacant lots, in the streambeds and along the roadways.

Make each one worth a nickel, and we create a market for them, a low-level economy, a monetary incentive for people not otherwise inclined to recycle or pick up trash.

A December working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Cambridge think tank in which many Nobel winners have been bred, found that "both water bottle deposits and recycling laws foster recycling behavior … that converts reluctant recyclers into diligent recyclers. The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists."

Everyone from street scavengers to the Boy Scouts could make money from the bottle deposit system. That used to be the norm in this country, but heavy lobbying by the beverage industry, and the advent of plastic bottling, kept the deposit system in check.

In Maryland, people have tried and failed to get deposits on soda and beer bottles for years. My former columnist colleague Tom Horton once noted that, during the long fight over making bottles returnable, as much as 72 percent of Marylanders supported the measure. "But industry lobbyists," Tom wrote, "as many as 26 in a single legislative session, always defeated it."

With the bold and smart support of the next governor and citizens who can't stand the mess of bottles in our midst, the deposit bill could be revived and passed in the next session (or two) of the Maryland legislature. In fact, I will bet a round on that at the Swallow at the Hollow (drafts, no bottles).

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. His e-mail is

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