Sunday, November 9, 2008

Closing the Loopholes

Loopholes, both in the manufacturing process and in the legislature, greatly hinder efforts to improve the recycling rate of aluminum cans. Aluminum is a valuable commodity, a source of revenue from which the beverage industry, waste haulers, scrap yards, retailers, and consumers all want to benefit, but few are willing to fund an improved and expanded recycling program. This battle has weighed heavily on the efforts of both state legislatures and Congress to pass the sweeping reforms necessary to overhaul the way in which aluminum is reclaimed and recycled, and this ongoing political infighting has, as it so often does, detracted from the issue at hand.

That said, the other major hurdle to the aluminum recycling dilemma lies in the political arena. One of the many loopholes in our current system of government allows large and powerful corporations to send lobbyists to Capitol Hill, and the beverage industry is no exception. These corporations spend tremendous amounts of money to persuade lawmakers to support legislation that would help the companies maximize profits, and to vote against bills that do not support their own special interests.

According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, “Bottle bills have been 'bottled up' in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress for over two decades, seldom getting to the floor for a full vote. They are generally defeated in small committees, often by a narrow margin. These defeats are due to the tremendous influence the well-funded, politically powerful beverage industry lobby wields over our elected officials.” Indeed, the opponents of bottle bill legislation have banded together to fight a number of ballot initiatives involving the implementation or expansion of bottle bill programs, both at the state and national levels.

With industry opponents spending more than 30 times what proponents of the bill are able to afford, it comes as little surprise that most of these bills are defeated. In 1996, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that the beverage industry spent more than $14 million between 1989 and 1994, aimed at persuading politicians to vote against the National Bottle Bill, and that in 1992, the U.S. Senate Committee members who did vote against the National Bottle Bill received 75 times the amount of PAC money that bottle bill supporters did.

Opponents argue that bottle bills would cause costs to rise among bottlers, distributors, and retailers, and cause jobs and sales to fall in the manufacturing sector. It seems to me that if they spent less money bribing politicians and more money on solving the problems caused by their production of disposable beverage containers, they could put millions of dollars into recycling initiatives, and still come out ahead! Opponents even claim that bottle bills would “rob” curbside recycling programs of valuable aluminum, thus reducing revenue. Although compelling, a closer look at these arguments shows them to be largely untrue.

First, curbside recycling programs are only available to 50% of the country, which means that half the population has no easy way to recycle. Although the number of curbside recycling programs has more than tripled since 1990, this method does not capture an acceptable amount of used beverage containers—the percentage of aluminum cans that are recycled has in fact decreased from 65% in 1992 to 43% in 2006. In states that have both bottle deposits and curbside recycling, research shows that the increased recycling rate comes largely from diverting cans from the waste stream and not from municipal recycling bins—unclaimed deposits range from 15-30% in most instances, and a number of these unredeemed cans appear in curbside bins.

Although the initial cost of implementing a deposit program is more expensive than other methods, it becomes more effective and cost-efficient in the long run. A number of companies, government agencies, and environmental organizations joined forces in 2000 and hired a bunch of consultants to analyze the cost and effectiveness of beverage container recycling of the current recycling methods. Among their findings was that, for an added expense of about 1.5 cents per six-pack, the recovery rates were 25 times higher in states that had bottle deposit programs than they were in states without these bottle bills.

Beverage distributors used to take empty bottles back to the plant to be cleaned, sanitized, and reused; if they were able to take back-hauling out of their system, they also have the ability to put it back in. Although beverage container waste costs money to recycle, just as it does to throw away, with the deposit method, producers and consumers shoulder the cost, instead of government and taxpayers. This creates a powerful incentive for manufacturers to eliminate unnecessary waste and reduce the amount of toxic substances used, and eases the burden on cities and states facing financial crises and budget deficits, as the cost is no longer borne by the taxpayers.

Some organizations are pushing for the implementation of extended producer responsibility, or producer take-back programs, which would require producers to take full responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products, from product design to end-of-life management. Many countries began adopting these standards in the 1990s but, for whatever reason, the U.S. has been reluctant to sign on.

Although the U.S. clearly has a ways to go to cut wasteful production and utilize recyclable materials, there is much room for improvement. Concerned citizens should demand their politicians to step up and denounce the lobbyists, and call for a change in the way this country handles its recyclables. Most importantly, we need to keep used beverage containers out of the waste stream—a myriad of solutions exist, we just need to fight to ensure their implementation, and hope these changes will come about sooner rather than later.

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