Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

During my stay at Lucy's place in Chocorua, New Hampshire last week (sorry for the blogging hiatus!) I picked up an old (well, May 2007) copy of the New York Times Magazine which had a very interesting and informative article about the history of bottle deposit legislation. Author Jon Mooallem reveals the economic and political complexities behind enacting this seemingly straightforward piece of legislation.

By placing value on something otherwise valueless, bottle deposits incentivize recycling and thereby promote behavior that ameliorates the burden of disposable containers on the environment:
  • According to the Pacific Institute, producing the bottles for American consumption in 2006 required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil (not including the energy for transportation) and bottling the water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide.
  • And according to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), states with bottle bill legislation have a beverage container recycling rate of about 60 percent, while non-deposit states achieve only about 24 percent.
Mooallem's article also addresses the daunting task of updating this 70s era policy to be more relevant, as the typical five cent deposit established 30-40 years ago equals only about one cent today. Imagine if all states implemented these programs (only eleven states currently have such systems in place), and if instead of the laughable five cent return, bottles were granted a 25 cent deposit. Who, then, would throw away their bottles? And what if plastic water bottles were also included in addition to the carbonated and alcoholic beverage containers that are accepted today? These improvements would at the very least stimulate a massive increase in recycling and at best would alter the relationship we have with our disposable containers and make us more mindful of the consequences of our waste (consider the implications of throwing something "away," and ask yourself if you can answer where that "away" is).

This article hearkened back to one of my favorite books, William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle. McDonough examines the contradictions and short-sightedness of the system of manufacturing established by the Industrial Revolution. He emphasizes the need to close the production loop from a manufacturer --> consumer --> landfill (or cradle to grave) approach, to a manufacturer --> consumer --> manufacturer (or cradle to cradle) approach. In the bottle deposit article, Mooallem cites how in the past beverage distributors would retrieve empty glass bottles for reuse (glass was too expensive at the time to simply discard), and suggests returning to a similar system which makes producers (and not consumers and municipalities) responsible for the ultimate fate of their containers. Bottling companies resist such a regression and understandably so: why start paying the collection and recycling costs they have shirked for decades? Plastic beverage containers have become so cheap to produce there is no economic incentive for corporations to assume responsibility for the waste they create.

The current system of five cent bottle deposits is outdated and needs to be reformed if there is any hope of curbing our nation's rampant rate of waste disposal. What were once dynamic pieces of legislation that gave value to the valueless and promoted recycling have become afterthoughts in the three to four decades since their inceptions. More states need to implement such legislation and those states that already have policy in place need to make sure that it adequately incentivizes the responsible disposal of containers.

I will conclude with the following tracker from CRI, which records the number of beverage cans and bottles that have been landfilled, littered, and incinerated in the US so far this year:

That's a lot of aluminum and plastic...

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