I dusted off my reporter's Magic 8 Ball the other day and asked it whether the newly revived container-recycling debate will be an issue in a year or two. I shook it up and stared into the murky little viewing window.
The answer always came back the same: “Cannot predict now.”
That's as good a way as I can come up with to tell where this is headed. While the outcome's uncertain, there are some developments that bear watching.
First, Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., is giving the issue a major boost from his pulpit as head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The longtime deposit advocate clearly has deep roots — he bragged to a recent congressional hearing that his father, a Vermont Supreme Court justice, wrote the opinion that legalized bottle bills there.
Jeffords' framing of deposits as an energy conservation issue will resonate in Washington. He argues that all the aluminum cans we threw out last year wasted enough electricity to power 3 million homes.
Second, some states and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are concerned about falling recycling rates and poor markets and are exploring engaging the industry in a dialogue. Similar talks with the carpet industry and the electronics industry cajoled them to do much more with recycling.
Finally, this all happens against a backdrop of falling recycling rates. The PET bottle-recycling rate has dropped from 38 percent in 1994 to 22 percent now. The aluminum can rate has dropped from 65 percent in 1992 to less than 50 percent today.
It's not fair to blame industry for that decline. We all drink a lot more away from home, where it's easier just to throw out the container.
But industry could have problems because it is not offering solutions that will do much to reverse the slide. It essentially argues local governments should improve their current recycling systems.
Cash-strapped cities don't want to hear that, and some ask why the industries that profit from popular single-serve containers can't help more with the environmental problems they create.
Industry officials always fight bottle bills, and they argue with validity that deposits burden them and raise costs for consumers — just like expanding curbside will cost taxpayers.
Industry officials argue that bottle bills rob curbside programs of valuable materials, but that problem can be addressed with a system like California's, which lets local governments essentially collect deposits on containers in the curbside system.
For me, when you consider that bottle bills generally recycle 60-70 percent of containers — three times that of curbside systems — and can be designed in a way that doesn't cost more than curbside systems, the path forward seems clear.
Of course, it's true that all this could blow over. Republicans could retake the Senate and Jeffords would lose power. The states and the EPA could decide recycling problems don't warrant a concerted dialogue. There are bigger environmental priorities.
Plastics News has long advocated bottle bills, and some probably consider us muddle-headed as a result. After all, here I am using a child's Magic 8 Ball to seek guidance on a thorny environmental problem.
But if industry isn't careful, it could instead find itself behind the eight ball on this one.
Steve Toloken is a Washington-based reporter for Plastics News.