Bottle bill proposed to curb littering

But the beverage industry opposes nickel deposits

Friday, Jan. 19, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — Hang on to those empty bottles. You could get a nickel for them if the General Assembly passes a bill that would place a surcharge on bottles, an idea last considered in the 1980s.

The bill, which Del. Peter A. Hammen (D-Dist. 46) of Baltimore said he would introduce in about two weeks, should resemble a bill being considered in neighboring West Virginia, where a 10-cent deposit fee on all beverage containers — glass, plastic or metal — is being considered as a way to reduce litter.

Beverage companies and retailers are already banding together to fight the bill.

‘‘We would strongly oppose such a measure,” said Barry F. Scher, a lobbyist with Giant Food, the region’s top grocer.

A coalition of retailers and beverage companies established a recycling center off Montrose Road in the early 1990s, Scher said. It operated for three years before closing. ‘‘People did not want to travel long distances to return recyclable material,” he said.

Hammen said he decided to introduce the bill after receiving a number of complaints about debris in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor while campaigning. Much of that debris is bottles, he said.

‘‘The level of garbage we have on our waterways is having an economic impact,” said Dru Schmitt-Perkins, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a Baltimore organization dedicated to growth and environmental issues. ‘‘It’s ugly. It’s embarrassing. ... The link between the economy and the environment is made with this bottle bill.”

The final details of the bill are still being worked out, including what to do with cash left over from surcharges that are not redeemed. It could be used to create some sort of ‘‘green” fund, Hammen said.

Bottles would be redeemable at regional collection sites, most likely run by the government, he said.

Bottle laws are not easily passed, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington.

‘‘They face a huge uphill battle always,” Franklin said. ‘‘The opposition is a powerful force to be reckoned with.”

In the case of Hammen’s bill, the opposition includes beverage associations, beer wholesalers and national brewing companies, service stations, retailers, restaurants and the International Bottled Water Association.

Those groups are sending legislators a letter that says the 5-cent deposit would ‘‘trigger higher grocery prices for consumers and a new state bureaucracy. ... We believe this is a poorly conceived plan that would hurt Maryland’s economy, its small businesses and its existing recycling efforts.”

While such powerful groups oppose the bill, there is more public awareness about the issue than the last time state lawmakers considered it, Franklin said.

‘‘The landscape is a lot different than it was even five years ago” she said. ‘‘There are many more beverage containers being purchased by consumers due to the introduction of new beverages such as bottled water. The containers are being seen more and more littered on streets and in streams and in rivers.”

Opponents of the bill say curbside recycling programs, spurred by the state’s recycling law, are a better way to encourage recycling than bottle deposits.

The Maryland Recycling Act requires all counties and Baltimore City to recycle 15 percent to 20 percent of their waste, depending on their population.

‘‘A bottle deposit law to some degree would undermine the recycling program,” said Thomas S. Saquella, a lobbyist for the Maryland Retailers Association. ‘‘Something that’s working very well, why would you want to disturb it?”

Eleven states have bottle laws. They are California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont, according to the Container Recycling Institute. Four others — West Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois and Arkansas — are considering them.

Most states with bottle laws have recycling rates of between 70 percent and 75 percent, Franklin said.

‘‘With so many states with bottle bills, we might as well have one, too,” said Schmitt-Perkins of 1,000 Friends.

Often, complicated bills need a year or two in the legislature to educate lawmakers of their provisions. That might not be necessary with a bottle bill, Schmitt-Perkins said.

‘‘This body is very, very environmentally aware,” she said, noting that the legislature has several members who receive 100 percent ratings from environmental groups.

Bottle bills proposed in the 1980s were ‘‘DOA [dead on arrival],” said Saquella, who added that he expected Hammen’s bill to meet the same fate.

‘‘This is something that is somewhat past its time, if you will, when you realize how well the recycling program is working,” he said.