There’s something about the post-election hangover that causes people to say really goofy things, and sometimes to publish them in an op-ed.
Case in point, Globe columnist Tom Keane. Personally, I’m not a big fan anyway, but this one’s downright silly.
It’s time to get rid of bottle deposits…. The notion of deposits on containers is deeply problematic, a flawed scheme from the 1980s. I first became disillusioned with the law when, living in Boston, I’d find my trash bags razored by bottle-pickers, debris strewn about. Now I’m in an apartment building, and single-stream recycling is — literally — down the hall: one chute for trash, one for recyclables. Trudging to the store to return bottles and cans makes no sense. From my point of view — and that of many others, I suspect — the expanded bottle bill would have been simply more money out of my pocket.
This is a classic self-absorbed bottle-bill-hater argument. It’s messy; it’s a hassle for me; my life would be simpler and cheaper if I didn’t have to pay deposits on bottles. It’s an argument that’s been made since the first bottle bill was passed; it’s been rejected for years. Nothing has changed.
But somehow, in light of Question 2′s failure at the ballot, the time has come to get rid of all bottle deposits? Say what? Surely, Keane has some excellent arguments in store. Before we examine them, let’s recall why we have a bottle bill in the first place. It is in place to solve a very specific problem, namely, discarded bottles on the streets. Litter. If there’s a financial incentive not to throw a bottle onto the street, people won’t do it, the argument goes – and if they do, someone else will pick it up. And it works: as we all know, 80% of deposit containers are recycled, compared to only about 25% of non-deposit containers.
OK. So, what does Keane have in the way of arguments for getting rid of the bottle bill, aside from the standard argument noted above?
The existing law is antiquated and in need of updating. But since that’s not going to happen, it’s time to come up with some new approaches.
Expanding “pay-as-you-throw” programs would be one approach. Now in place in more than 140 Massachusetts communities, the concept is to charge homeowners a fee for each bag of trash they put out, while collecting recyclables for free. According to case studies by the state, such programs can dramatically increase recycling.
#Fail. Pay-as-you-throw may be a fine idea, but it has nothing to do with the litter problem. Pay-as-you-throw creates an incentive to put recyclable waste in the recycling bin, instead of in a trash bag. But litter, by definition, doesn’t end up in either. If someone’s already inclined to toss their empty water bottle onto the street, pay-as-you-throw doesn’t create any incentive not to do so.
At the same time, we could follow the example of Delaware, which abandoned its bottle deposit law in 2010 and moved to what the state calls “universal recycling.” Initially funded with a fee on beverages, all businesses have to participate, and all household trash haulers have to offer residents single-stream recycling. Since the bottle bill ended, the percent of Delaware’s trash that is recycled has climbed from 33.7 to 40.1, according to the state.
Still not good enough, for several reasons. First, a 40% recycling rate may be good for Delaware; it obviously pales in comparison to the 80% recycling rate of deposit containers in Massachusetts. Second, common sense tells you that many single-serving beverage containers are not consumed at home or in a restaurant. Rather, they are something you pick up at a convenience store, you drink, and then you throw away (either in a trash can or on the street). It’s commendable, but I’d venture quite rare, for people to chug that bottle of water and then hang onto the empty bottle until you get home several hours later so that you can dutifully toss it into your single-stream recycling bin. Most people just don’t operate that way. Plus, notice that Delaware’s plan was “initially funded with a fee on beverages,” which sounds a lot like a tax (much moreso than the bottle bill, where deposits are refundable). I imagine that’s going to go well.
And that’s all he’s got. Astonishingly, Keane never comes to grips with the basic point about the bottle bill: it works. It’s too bad it didn’t get expanded; what that means is that we’ll continue to see water and juice bottles on the streets, both in communities that have single-stream curbside recycling and communities that don’t, just as we do now. Getting rid of deposits all together would simply mean that we’d start seeing Coke cans and beer bottles on the streets as well, which now is fairly rare. And that would be good because…?