Deposit opponents miss the message in the bottle

A chance to make some money, help the environment – what's not to like?

March 18, 2013|Dan Rodricks

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more," I say, quoting Shakespeare's Henry V, the breach being not the hole in the wall at Harfleur, but the gap between who Marylanders are as recyclers and who we could be.

How's that for reducing a fine literary allusion into a mundane practicality?

But I mean well. I'm talking about the gap between being pretty good recyclers of bottles and cans and being nearly excellent recyclers of same.

Into that breach comes the bottle-deposit bill, now before the General Assembly.

Here's the idea: Put a refundable nickel deposit on every can or bottle of beverage sold in Maryland and we might increase our rate of bottle and can recycling from the present 41 percent to as high as 75 percent. (In Vermont, where the crunchy people live, the rate is 85 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute.)

In case you just took your seat in the theater, some quick background:

Some senators and delegates in Annapolis have filed a bill to establish a Maryland container deposit system similar to the one in Vermont and nine other states.

Add a nickel to the price of every container at the wholesale level, before they go into the retail market. Consumers get all those nickels back when they return containers to "reverse vending machines" that give a nickel for every bottle or can they insert. The reclamation machines are usually anchored near supermarkets, or on a patch of public land convenient to citizens.

The reclaimers get three pennies for every container they handle, and that money comes out of a fund established by the state comptroller from deposits on unredeemed containers.

That's essentially how it works.

Supporters of the bill say the state could significantly reduce the number of bottles and cans that end up in our streets and rivers if we offer the nickel-per-container incentive.

With about 4 billion such containers sold in Maryland every year, they say, there's room for a deposit system to augment the increasingly successful, but still underused, curbside recycling programs.

Of course, not everyone is ga-ga for this idea.

Some want to see the bill deep-sixed.

"Who's he that wishes so?" (Shakespeare again. Sorry.)

The Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League oppose the proposal because they fear it will undercut single-stream recycling efforts, says Bruce Bereano, the longtime Annapolis lobbyist.

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association opposes the legislation, dismissing it as an elaborate, job-killing scheme that will not achieve the intended result. Ellen Valentino, the lobbyist for that group, says Marylanders already are making significant progress in recycling bottles and cans; the deposit system isn't needed.

David Craig, the Harford County executive, wants no part of the proposed container deposit system, either.

"The bill sounds good," he wrote me after my first column on this subject a few weeks ago. "It just is not. State elected officials often are philosophers. County elected officials are pragmatists."

The Bel Air pragmatist says Harford already is one of the top recycling counties in the state, and second-lowest (behind Montgomery County) in the amount of trash it sends to a landfill. Craig suggested that few people will want to return a case of empty beer bottles for the $1.20 refund.

And here's the part he really doesn't like:

"The bill would require Harford County to establish nine redemption centers. That would cost us $5 million a year to operate — and I am sure the neighbors will not want them. It would also cost about $1 million to establish the centers."

I asked Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, one of the lead sponsors of the measure, about Craig's criticism.

"Those numbers are pulled out of the sky," she said, before making the following suggestion to Craig:

"Why not invest in reverse vending machines at $15,000 per machine? Pick nine or more sites and install several at one site or have grocery stores position them outside. Have one or two drivers empty them daily and take them to the recyling center."

I'm with McIntosh on this.

I don't have another Shakespeare quote for this point. But here's some advice I got years ago from a college president: "Never make a problem out of an opportunity."

That seems to be what the bottle-deposit opponents are doing, seeing a problem where there's a chance to make some money and help the environment.

Beverage wholesalers earn interest on the deposits — they get to hold all those nickels for 45 days after collecting them from retailers. After 45 days, the deposit money goes to the state.

The state, in turn, pays out the nickel-per-container deposits to the reclamation centers, plus the 3-cent-per-container handling fee. If they want, retailers can get in on the act by setting up those reverse vending machines. Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, nonprofits — in fact, anyone can get in on this. As Shakespeare might have said: "What's not to like?"

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