Tuesday, August 29, 2006

:: The Definition of Insanity ::

Perhaps made most famous by Kramer and Newman on Seinfeld, who tried to fill a postal truck with bottles from New York to return, at double the deposit refund, in Michigan, eleven states currently have “bottle bills,” also known as “container deposit laws.” A container deposit law requires a minimum refundable deposit on beer, soft drink and other beverage containers in order to insure a high rate of recycling or reuse.

(Here, the dark color denotes states with current bottle bills. The lighter shade denotes states in which there are current campaigns. Image courtesy of www.bottlebill.org).

Coming from New York, where the bottle bill first passed in 1982, container deposits were always just a part of my life. When I was eight or nine, my father even helped me start a little business called EBFU, or Environmental Bottle Finders Unlimited. His company was building/renovating a very large building, so every weekend dad and I would go over to the worksite and collect all of the bottles and cans left behind by the workmen. Then, he would take me to Wegmans and we would turn in the bottles for 5 cents apiece. Finally, the boring part: we would go home and input our new earnings into this AppleWorks spreadsheet dad had created for me. We kept track of spending (I think he charged me for the black trash bags we used, but not for the gas required to drive out to East Rochester) and income. By the time the building was finished I had earned more than $100.

The first time I left home was for North Carolina: one semester at the University of NC at Chapel Hill. There is no bottle deposit in North Carolina, and I remember that being one of the first things I noticed there: people threw their bottles in the trash! No one I knew at home would ever have done that.

Now, living in Ohio, I find the same thing here. On campus (at Ohio State), there are a few places on campus to recycle cans and bottles, but you have to seek them out. Most people just toss their bottles in the trash with their Fritos bags and Snickers wrappers. And, since there is no curbside recycling program here (unless you pay for it privately), most people I know also throw their cans and bottles away at home! Before Brian and I started paying for recycling service, we did, though it felt so strangely foreign.

This made me wonder: why don’t all 50 states have bottle bills? They don’t seem like they harm anyone. So I did a little research.

First, the good:
According to NYPIRG, more than 80 billion bottles and cans have been returned and recycled over the last 20 years through New York’s bottle bill. More than five million tons of plastic, glass and metal have been kept out of our landfills and incinerators. And, “there is less litter and broken glass in New York streets, parks, playgrounds and beaches, making them safer, cleaner, and more attractive.” In fact, NYPIRG just got a “bigger, better bottle bill” passed by a 2-to-1 margin in New York, which will expand the program to include deposits on non-carbonated beverages such as bottled water, iced tea, juice and sports drinks and to require the beverage industry to return all unclaimed deposits to the state to fund recycling programs and other environmental needs.

Not surprisingly, the bottle industry doesn’t like bottle bills. Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the association of food, beverage, and consumer products companies, argues that “mandatory deposit measures” are “costly, inefficient and targeted at a narrow segment of the waste stream.” They have a white paper here, if you’re interested. Now, I’m not trying to take sides, but I find GMA’s white paper to be heavy on words and light on actual statistics, which as any first-year college student will tell you is a sign that the statistics may not be in their favor. Their main complaint is that bottle bill recycling programs are costly to run because they necessitate a whole system of tracking, sorting, etc. They would prefer bottles be returned via curbside recycling. That’s nice, but 50% of the nation still doesn’t have curbside recycling. They also complain that bottle bill recycling programs take valuable income away from curbside recycling companies because it takes aluminum (a lucrative recyclable) out of the curbside bins.

The thing is, I want so badly to get involved somehow. As my recent posts suggest, I feel like there are so many small ways for us to make changes in our daily lives that would have a good (even if small) impact on our world. And, I feel like mostly we just don’t know to do those things. So I like to read up on stuff and, when possible, share what I’ve learned. But when it comes to taking bigger action, I often feel like I don’t know what the right thing is to do. Bottlebill.org, for example, has a toolkit for activists. If I wanted to, I could start a bottle bill campaign here in Ohio. But then I wonder: are the industry pundits at least partly right? Would my time and effort be better spent on, say, rallying for curbside recycling. Yeah, probably. But then again, isn’t there then also probably something even bigger on which my time would be even still better spent?

This is certainly the definition of inertia, that property of matter (and people) by which things at rest remain at rest unless acted on by some external force. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t also the definition of insanity: such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one from having the mental capacity to act; extreme folly or unreasonableness. (These definitions have been adapted from Merriam Webster Online).