Friday, October 31, 2008

National Bottle Bill

According to studies conducted by the Container Recycling Institute, the recycling rate of beverage containers has fallen nearly 20% since 1990, from 60.9% to a dismal 41.5% in 2006. With industries and municipalities generating ever-increasing amounts of solid waste—and area landfills reaching capacity at alarming rates—the need to improve the reclamation rate of recyclable materials in Chicago (and throughout the nation) has reached critical mass. In fact, the Illinois EPA predicts that all of the landfills in the Chicago Metropolitan Area will be filled (and subsequently closed) within the next five to eight years.

Beverage containers make up nearly 80% of all containers sold in the United States, but traditional curbside recycling methods do not capture a satisfactory percentage of these containers. Perhaps this because more than one-third of these beverages are consumed away from home and emptied within minutes, which makes the containers particularly wasteful. In fact, 45-60% of litter in this country is comprised of used beverage containers.

Although the EPA reports that used soda containers (plastic and aluminum) make up only 2.7% of the Municipal Solid Waste stream, this is largely due to their small size and lightweight composition. More than half of the 200 billion beverage containers sold in the U.S. in 2006 wound up in landfills—58 billion of those containers were aluminum cans, one of the most easily recycled materials known to man.

Experts agree that the reycling industry would benefit from a multi-faceted approach, as no easy answer to this problem currently exists. First, recycling has to be convenient for consumers, which is why the Blue Cart Initiative (introduced in 2007, the program will be citywide by 2011) uses the single-stream recycling method. This means that recyclables are not separated until they arrive at the processing center. This method requires less effort by residents and takes up less space in the home, and it also reduces collection costs because crews are able to work faster when they don’t have to sort the recyclables going into the truck. The thought is that residents will be more willing to participate in a recycling program that requires minimal effort.

The second approach to the recycling dilemma is to provide consumers with an added incentive to recycle. One of the most successful incentive programs in existence is the bottle bill, which charges consumers five cents (ten cents in Michigan) per beverage container sold. The perceived added value of returning cans makes these programs more appealing than traditional buy-back programs, which fetch only one or two cents per can. The deposit is then refunded when containers are returned to the retailer. This program was first established in Oregon in 1971, and to date, eleven states have adopted similar programs (although only ten take back aluminum containers, which are exempted from the bottle bill program in Connecticut). Illinois, however, is noticeably absent from this list.

States with bottle bill programs report sharp increases in the recycling of beverage containers, averaging 75-80%. Michigan, with it’s hefty ten-cent deposit, boasts the greatest return rate of nearly 95%, while California, which offers only a three-to-five-cent refund, still has a 58% recycling rate, much higher than the national average. Litter from beverage containers was reduced by 70-83% in these states, with an overall litter reduction of 30-47%.

The money generated from unclaimed deposits (15-30%, as some of these cans are recycled through the municipal recycling program instead, and some are, sadly, thrown away) generally goes back to the state to fund environmental incentives, although some states give a portion to distributors and retailers to offset the costs of the take-back and pick-up. This translates into millions of dollars in most states—wouldn’t this be more effective than the exorbitant taxes imposed by Cook County and the City of Chicago? The current tax on canned beverages is 13.25%, and a liquor tax is added to alcoholic beverages on top of the initial tax. Many Cook County residents get around this by crossing county lines to purchase these items, (which makes the intended use of the tax as revenue generator less effective), and those who don’t never see a penny of that money back.

Last year, Massachusetts Congressman Edward J. Markey introduced the Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act, a nation-wide bottle bill that would encourage large-scale recycling of glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers. Not only would the bill bring this program—its effectiveness already proven by 22% of the country—to the entire nation, it would also improve existing bottle bills, many of which have not yet been updated to include plastic bottles. As Representative Markey explains, “Congress can send the nation a global warming message in a bottle. We can still quench our thirst while reducing our thirst for energy. And we can have carbon dioxide in our fizzy drinks, while cutting down on heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Some leading environmental and recycling organizations, such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Container Recycling Institute, have already backed the National Bottle Bill, and it seems like the majority of the public would be in favor of the bill as well. According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, 70-75% of Americans support a nationwide bill, while 70-85% of residents in states where bottle bills already exist would be in favor of expanding the program to include plastic soda and juice containers. These solutions, combined with the third approach—education and outreach—should help Americans recover many more aluminum cans from the waste stream in years to come.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Alternative Gift Registry

Although I have spent a great deal of money on shower gifts and wedding presents for friends and relatives who have gotten married over the years (and am starting the process all over again now that they're starting to have kids), the coolest gift I ever gave was one that the bride and groom couldn't register for. Instead of fine China, my friend was determined to collect place settings and serving bowls of a pattern her grandma used to have-- one that hasn't been manufactured since the 1950s. So my roommate and I scoured antique malls and thrift stores and managed to put together a tea set, replete with a tea pot, sugar and creamer, and four cups and saucers. She was so excited to receive the set, and we had so much fun finding all the different pieces; best of all, our dollars went much further than they would have in a department store.

I've kept that great idea of hers in the back of my mind-- if and when I ever get married, I would love to find a new use for old products, or at least give my friends and family a choice of where they purchase gifts. I can't imagine that I'll need to ask for nearly as much as a young couple who gets married right out of college would, for I've scraped together enough to fill my kitchen and apartment. I don't have a need for everything to be shiny and new-- some of my most prized posessions and one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture once belonged to someone else. In fact, I might not need to register for much stuff at all-- I'd love to be able to "register" for more abstract things, such as having someone feed my cats while we're on our honeymoon, make a donation to a favorite charity in our name, or offer up their musical talents during the ceremony in lieu of money or gifts.

I learned this spring that, thanks to the (non-profit) Center for the New American Dream, such a registry now exists. Known as the Alternative Gift Registry, engaged couples and expectant parents can now create such a list, free of charge. The sample registries include great ideas such as asking for recipes or volunteer babysitters. For material items, the registry makers may suggest a store or Web site where the item is sold, although gift givers may purchase it anywhere. When an item is purchased, found, or donated, the gift giver enters the information into their computer, and the registry is updated.

The site also includes environmental tips, statistics, and checklists for having a "green" wedding! It's such a neat, yet simple idea-- the bride and groom (or new parents) can customize the registry to include items from several different stores, and to ask for non-material gifts that are more meaningful to them than crystal goblets or toaster ovens, and it gives friends and family the opprotunity to donate their time, knowledge, or services without putting a strain on their wallet. I mean-- for me anyway-- when given a choice between receiving napkin rings and DVDs or having a group of friends spend the weekend helping us renovate our first home, the choice seems clear-- I'd much rather have the help and the memories than the meaningless stuff!

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Good Deed Gone Bad

In a rare moment of financial stability, I made a $20 donation to an environmental non-profit organization last summer. Before I became a contributing member of this group, I distinctly remember reading the fine print on the donation slip about how they would NEVER sell my name to third parties, etc. I even got a free tote bag for my generosity. So I was saving the planet and saving plastic bags from the landfills-- what could be wrong with that?

Plenty, apparently, because the group I joined didn't sell my information-- they gave it away.

Shortly after my free gift arrived, I began receiving unsolicited mail from other environmental organizations. Wouldn't I join their efforts as well, to save the polar bears, to curb deforestation, to keep our wild places wild? I could become a member for just $25, just $16, just $9 a year, and would receive a free ruck sack, plush toy, or umbrella in return for my donation.

Before I know it, this deluge of charitable donation requests has expanded to include animal rights groups, scientific research labs, and even childrens' charities. Then I start receiving duplicate mailings from persistent organizations that had asked for (but did not receive) my help in the past. Next, the group I joined starts reminding me that they've been able to count on me for $20 in the past-- won't I give an additional $30 now to stop drilling in the artic before it's too late?

Some groups are so confident that I will contribute to their worthy cause that they send the free gifts up front-- I am the proud owner of three monogrammed pads of paper, five window decals, a handful of cards, three calendars, and more mailing labels than I can hope to use in a lifetime. I also get pre-printed petitions, addressed to my senators and congressmen, expressing my presumed outrage over some bill that has not been passed, or some policy that has not been enforced. All I have to do is sign at the bottom, print my credit card number on the back, and send it in.

Past presidents, prolific authors, and famous actors are writing to me almost daily about the plight of one underrepresented group or another, each plea more heartbreaking than the last. Wouldn't I like to save the blue-footed booby from extinction, give children with cleft lips a chance at a normal life, or feed and vaccinate scores of homeless animals? Of course I would, but I'm not willing to put myself in the poor house to do so.

Now, instead of feeling good about supporting a worthy cause, I feel like crap, because I can't afford to donate to every organization I feel passionately about. And because of my financial ineptitude, I will not be able to right all the wrongs in this world. One of my favorite sayings is " give freely of your time, your effort, and your means." I don't have any means, but I feel that I more than make up for it in the other areas, and c'mon-- two out of three's not bad, right?

Most annoying of all is the amount of paper wasted by these futile mailings. The gut-wrenching letters are sometimes three or four pages long, then there's a postage-paid envelope, a donation slip, glossy pictures of the free gifts I could receive, and more.

Some of the letters proudly state that they were printed on recycled paper using soy-based inks-- but since I never wanted these mailings in the first place, who cares!?! It's still junk mail that clogs up the postal system, that I have to take the time to shred and/or recycle, and it's cluttering up my life. I had signed up for all sorts of opt-out services a few years back, services that I will now have to find and sign up for all over again.

In the meantime, however, my course of action is to NOT renew my membership with this group, thus letting the polar bears drown and the grey wolves be hunted to extinction-- and hope they eventually forget my name and lose my number-- at least until I can afford to make a donation to another group-- one that won't exploit my good intentions.