On the surface, the fight between Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling and the National Soft Drink Association reads like something only a recycling nerd would get into.
But dig deep into the studies, critiques, and critiques of critiques coming out of the two groups, and you find this interesting tidbit.
NSDA, a longtime proponent of curbside recycling and opponent of bottle bills, lashed into BEAR for making an overly expensive estimate of the cost of curbside programs.
But BEAR cried foul, arguing that to lower the cost of curbside, NSDA made a ``contrived'' assumption: that curbside programs can collect the same amount of valuable aluminum cans as California's bottle bill.
NSDA declined to say why it chose the figure it did, other than to say it is difficult to find good figures and that it wanted to cast doubt on some of BEAR's assumptions.
``This is not the most important issue for us and we don't have anything further to say about that,'' said NSDA director of environmental affairs Preston Read.
That is one telling example of the statistical war of words the two groups are waging, although NSDA would argue that it is far from the most important. The soft drink group argues that attention should focus on its much more detailed critique of BEAR's estimate of the cost of California's bottle bill.
The report that BEAR put out in mid-January is likely to be studied closely by government officials, so Plastics News took a more detailed look at the numbers. Perhaps foreshadowing how the report will be used politically, NSDA charged that BEAR's report was tilted toward promoting deposits. BEAR-study participants rejected that.
First, the numbers: BEAR's basic task was to figure out how much it costs to recycle a beverage container. It reported that it costs 2.21 cents per container in traditional bottle bills, 0.55 cent in California's modified bottle bill and 1.72 cents in curbside programs.
The report found wide differences in recycling rates:
* Curbside programs recycle between 9-18 percent of containers.
* Traditional bottle bills recycle 61 percent of containers.
* California's modified system recycles 54 percent.
Here is the rub: Washington-based NSDA said BEAR understated California's bottle bill costs and overstated costs in curbside programs. NSDA pegs the cost at 1.27 cents for California's modified bottle bill and 1.4 cents for curbside.
Much of the public attention thus far has focused on the California figures, even though BEAR officials pointedly say they are not endorsing any plan now.
Here are the details on the groups' curbside debate:
To lower the cost of curbside recycling from 1.72 cents to 1.4 cents, NSDA assumed curbside brings in 26 percent aluminum. BEAR assumed the aluminum number to be 6 percent.
BEAR said its figure came from the experience of one of the four consultants it hired, R.W. Beck Inc. in Orlando, Fla. Beck prepares the Washington-based American Plastics Council's annual recycling report and was hired in part because the firm has well-known industry leanings.
BEAR chose four consultants - two with industry ties and two with environmental ties - and all four signed a statement defending their analysis from NSDA's critique.
Read declined to talk about why NSDA chose 26 percent. That figure happens to be the percentage of aluminum collected in California's bottle bill system. Bottle bills draw a much larger percentage of aluminum than curbside programs, and it is the decision to swap in that number that prompted BEAR to cry foul.
``Their changes to the curbside program are such a blatant attempt to find a way to prove their point,'' said Ed Boisson, project manager for the BEAR report and a recycling consultant in Pittsboro, N.C.
Beck officials declined to comment on their 6 percent figure, saying they do not talk about client projects. BEAR presented estimates of the aluminum mix in curbside programs that ranged from 4.5 percent in Boulder, Colo., to 16.8 percent in Hillsborough County, Fla., and said the average was 5.5 percent.
For NSDA, however, that is focusing on the wrong thing. Much more important, they say, is its critique of BEAR's costs for the California bottle bill. Those figures account for the much larger share of NSDA's cost adjustment.
NSDA said there are $65 million in costs that BEAR ignored, and by NSDA's calculations, that pushes the per-container charge to 1.27 cents from 0.55 cent. (Indeed, BEAR had once before adjusted its California numbers, from 0.14 cent in a preliminary announcement in November to 0.55 when the report was released in January.)
BEAR maintains that it looked only at the costs to operate California's bottle bill system - not the total revenue generated by that system.
Read said that method misses money collected by the bottle bill that is spent to bolster recycling and fight litter, the two chief goals of the legislation.
The extra money NSDA added in includes at least $9 million in administrative expenses, $10 million in revised processing costs, $10 million in grants to curbside, $10.5 million in grants to local governments, $8 million in grants to local conservation efforts and $5 million to promote recycling.
``They appear to be legitimate expenditures that appear to make the California system work,'' said NSDA spokesman Sean McBride.
Read said that since municipalities in California get reimbursed from the bottle bill for containers collected in curbside, money spent to bolster curbside recycling should be included.
But Boisson claimed it was legitimate to exclude containers collected in curbside programs that municipalities get reimbursed for from bottle bill proceeds. BEAR looked only at containers collected as part of the bottle bill system when figuring bottle bill costs, he said.
Boisson added that BEAR excluded much of the money NSDA wanted to add because it was spent in 2000, and not in 1999, the year that BEAR studied. But NSDA said the money was collected in 1999 and should have been spent then, so it is fair to include it.
Boisson also said that BEAR did not include other subsidies that governments give to curbside programs around the country, because they are not strictly related to the operating costs that BEAR was trying to analyze.
Boisson said BEAR acknowledges there are problems with the funding mechanisms in California, and welcomes talking about them in the next phase of its work.
One reason California's bottle bill may be the lowest-cost recycling system is because it has a more centralized collection than most other bottle bills. But the plan also has a large bureaucracy to administer it, and it charges fees to plastic and glass container makers to subsidize the cost of recycling. The system takes in a lot more money than it needs to operate, Boisson said.
In the end, it is unclear what will happen next with BEAR. One key element of its work thus far was the active involvement of Coca-Cola North America.
But Atlanta-based Coke has pulled out of the next stage of BEAR's work. Coke environmental manager Ben Jordan said the company disagreed with the California numbers and was bothered that some environmental groups used the report to endorse California's bottle bill, what he termed a violation of BEAR's process.
He said Coke wanted to continue working in some collaborative process, but he said that might not necessarily include all the participants in the BEAR process.
BEAR Chairman Pierre Ferrari said the group wants to continue its collaborative process, looking at end markets for recycled materials and at recommendations. The group plans to spend the next few months making presentations on its work thus far.
Atlanta-based BEAR is a unit of Global Green USA, the U.S. wing of Mikhail Gorbachev's Green Cross International.