The group Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling began with an ambitious and noble goal - find a way to break the political deadlock in beverage container recycling between the pro- and anti-bottle-bill camps.
While the group hasn't achieved that, it has accomplished a lot and deserves praise. Amid word that the group is giving up on its attempt to get the beverage industry to keep talking and is scaling back its plans dramatically, it's worth noting what BEAR has done.
The group wrote a report that for the first time laid out the costs of different recycling systems, and put those side by side with the benefits. It presented data showing how much it costs to recycle a container under curbside and drop-off programs, traditional bottle bills and California's very complicated bottle bill.
BEAR wrote that report with help from Coca-Cola Co., which deserves credit for signing up. Coke was joined by some unusual entrants, like a major carpet maker that depends on PET bottles for supply and Global Green USA, the U.S. wing of Mikhail Gorbachev's Green Cross International. Coke, however, later pulled out, saying it was angered that environmentalists in the group started commenting on the report prematurely. Others in BEAR said Coke got its legs cut out from under it by its bottlers and the rest of the beverage industry, which never seemed to want much to do with BEAR. Tensions between anti-bottle-bill Coke and pro-bottle-bill BEAR members never were far from the surface.
BEAR tried hard to present the debate as something other than pro- and anti-bottle bill, but it quickly became just that. The industry tried hard to paint BEAR as a pro-bottle-bill group, but it's not fair to tar BEAR's efforts like that, in our opinion.
For example, BEAR's report got unanimous approval from the four consultants who helped write it, including two who were hired precisely because of their strong ties with industry. (The other two were hired for their environmental leanings.)
Industry critiques said BEAR underestimated costs of California's bottle bill, and made good points about problems in California's system. But the National Soft Drink Association played loose with some facts in its own critique, undercutting its credibility.
California's system emerged as an intriguing, low-cost model with higher yields than curbside programs, but BEAR never was able to get beyond the politics and look at the most interesting question - how California's system could have been modified to address some of the industry's legitimate concerns.
Instead, the parties settled into the same old trenches they've always occupied, and container recycling rates remain in trouble.
Some state and federal environmental officials are trying to build on BEAR's efforts and renew dialogue with industry. We think industry needs to participate in a more substantive way than it has.
BEAR representatives stress that the group will continue to exist, under Global Green's wing. It still wants to talk. But in all likelihood, it will not move ahead with its plans to engage industry in further dialogue, seemingly conceding that is too difficult politically.
Only time will tell if BEAR's efforts formed a valuable prelude or were a noble but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to boost recycling. One thing is certain, though: BEAR deserves much credit for moving the debate forward.