The first congressional hearing in a decade on container recycling, held July 11 in a packed Senate committee room, began with a strongly worded challenge to industry from one of the Senate's most influential environmental policy makers, Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt.
``I hope that today's hearing galvanizes the beverage industry to work cooperatively with other stakeholders to accept deposit systems or develop other solutions to the beverage container waste problem,'' Jeffords said.
Jeffords, chair of the Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, called the hearing to build support for his version of a national bottle bill and to call attention to falling national container recycling rates, including for plastics. PET recycling rates, for example, have dropped from 38 percent in 1994 to 22 percent today.
What was most noteworthy about the hearing may be the fact that it was even held at all - the container recycling issue has been dormant in Washington for much of the last decade.
Even the hearing's relatively dry agenda, for example, was enough to fill the room with lobbyists, mainly because of Jeffords' newfound power as head of the environment committee.
Jeffords' hearing comes as a group of state and federal environmental officials are considering starting a national dialogue with the beverage industry on boosting recycling rates.
That effort, which officials said is in the very early stages, could be modeled on similar talks between government and industry that are aimed at boosting recycling of electronics and carpet, according to Sherry Enzler, director of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.
Enzler is part of the group that is thinking of approaching the beverage sector, and she worked on both the electronics and carpet talks. But both Enzler and a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency said state and federal officials might decide not to proceed with the beverage talks. Several industry officials said they had not been contacted.
What all the activity will mean for recycling is hard to say.
Jeffords' bill, for example, does not have any co-sponsors and one of his aides concedes that moving forward ``will be an uphill battle.'' One industry observer noted that only one other senator, Thomas Carper, D-Del., attended the hearing.
The bill would put a 10 cent deposit on containers, set an 80 percent recycling goal and require industry to manage the system. Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the House.
Another uncertainty: If the Senate, which is narrowly in Democratic hands, changes to Republican control in November's midterm elections, Jeffords almost certainly would lose his committee chairmanship. Jeffords, an independent, assumed the leadership slot after bolting from the Republican Party last year and throwing the Senate into Democratic hands.
Jeffords said after the hearing that he is mainly in the information-gathering stages and that the effort will take a long time, but he made clear his preference for a bottle bill. He said California's current version could serve as a national model.
``It looks very attractive,'' he said after the hearing. ``If you can do it in California, you can do it anywhere, I guess.''
Jeffords also framed the issue as saving energy and reducing the country's dependence on foreign energy sources, rather than the more traditional litter and landfill arguments.
He said he was alarmed by recent statistics from the Container Recycling Institute that said 50 billion aluminum cans were thrown out in the United States last year. If the cans had been recycled, that would have saved the energy equivalent of 16 million barrels of crude oil, enough to generate electricity for 3 million U.S. homes for a year, Jeffords said.
``The waste is disturbing,'' he said. ``Our disposal practices have got to change.''
Whatever the political prospects, witnesses at the hearing debated the best solutions to attacking container recycling.
Kevin Dietly, a Massachusetts consultant who was the chief witness testifying for the beverage industry, said that a national deposit system would have only limited environmental benefits.
Containers are about 4 percent of the solid-waste stream, which means that putting in a national bottle bill would raise the U.S. recycling rate from 28 percent to just 29 percent, said Dietly, a consultant with Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants in Westford, Mass.
Taxpayers also have invested in curbside recycling systems, and bottle bills will take revenue away from those programs by pulling valuable materials out, he said. Building a national deposit system also would cost at least $4 billion, he said.
Industry maintains a deposit system is costly to companies and raises prices for consumers, but bottle-bill supporters say local governments and taxpayers should not have to bear most of the costs of container waste.
Jeffords said there has been an explosion in the use of plastic containers, and they are expensive for curbside systems to recycle and have relatively low scrap value. He asked Dietly why taxpayers should pay for that recycling, and not the industries that profit from selling the containers.
Dietly replied that ``all recycling is inherently an expensive undertaking'' and he said that a deposit system is not the most efficient way to collect containers.
But Edward Boisson, an environmental consultant who helped write a recent report on the cost of recycling for Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling, said deposit systems could be made much cheaper with efficient design.
Good design can cut costs from more than 2 cents a container in traditional systems to about half a cent, Boisson said. In comparison, a typical curbside program spends 1.7 cents to recycle each container, he said.
Deposit states recover 72 percent of their beverage containers, while nondeposit states recover 28 percent, he said.
Jeffords' hearing also included witnesses examining the federal government's policies on purchasing products with recycled content.
A 2001 report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the success of federal programs was uncertain and that many government procurement officials ``either do not know about or implement'' requirements for such purchasing.