For the past decade, opponents of bottle deposits have had a good deal of success with a rather simple strategy. They work hard to convince voters and legislators that deposits - especially the deposits that are never redeemed by consumers - are a tax.
It's a lot easier convincing people to vote against new taxes than to vote in favor of more litter.
Still, we're convinced that deposits have merit, primarily for the good they could do to boost plastics' dismal recycling rate, and because they could boost supplies of clean, valuable plastics that otherwise are wasted.
The newest effort - Sen. James Jeffords' introduction of a national bottle bill - may not fly through Congress this year, but it has some interesting wrinkles worth paying attention to.
Jeffords, I-Vt., is one of the Senate's most influential environmentalists. He heads the Environment and Public Works Committee, giving him a nice bully pulpit. He plans a hearing on the bill this summer, when the problems of bottle waste will get a national stage for the first time in years.
A longtime supporter of Vermont's bottle bill, Jeffords is trying a new approach. His bill would tell industry to achieve an 80 percent recycling rate, but leave the particulars of how to design the system up to industry. A similar approach in British Columbia recycles 81 percent of its containers.
To finance the system, the bill would let industry keep unclaimed deposits. It also would punish those that don't achieve an 80 percent recycling rate by requiring them to refund all unclaimed deposits to state governments.
The bill is far from becoming law. It doesn't have any co-sponsors, and bottle waste is not a big deal in Washington at the moment. But industry needs to prepare, because the bill definitely will spotlight plastics' nagging recycling problems.
Deposits do pose a significant burden on the beverage industry. Soft drink companies, bottlers and grocers, like the PET resin and bottle sectors, very rightly worry that costs will get passed down and eat into their already-tight margins.
But recycling rates have been falling. The PET soda bottle recycling rate has dropped from about 53 percent to 35 percent since 1994, for example, as sales have mushroomed for profitable, 20-ounce containers consumed away from home.
The other wild card is the energy issue. Environmentalists are tying recycling to energy conservation, a topic that is a big deal in Washington. They claim that recycling 80 percent of containers (including PET, aluminum and glass) will save enough energy to power 5 million homes a year.
It's easy to think of a national bottle bill as a fanciful idea, and maybe it is. But consider that when environmentalists first started pressuring Coca-Cola Co. to use recycled PET five years ago, that too seemed fanciful. Now it's reality.