Can Or Bottle, Bill Wants Makers
To Pay For Recycling

by Greg Winter

The first Congressional hearings on recycling in at least a decade begin today as environmental advocates in the Senate push to hold the beverage industry, not states, cities or consumers, responsible for salvaging the billions of bottles and cans thrown away every year.

Senator James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent who became chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works when he broke with the Republican Party last year, called the hearings to build momentum behind a national bottle bill. It is an issue Mr. Jeffords has raised in Washington for nearly 30 years but has never had the power to force until now.

Under the Senate bill, much as in legislation that is expected to be introduced in the House as early as this week, beverage companies would be required to ensure that 80 percent of bottles and cans are recycled within two years. Now, less than half of aluminum cans, the most valuable of beverage containers, are recycled.

Despite the proliferation of curbside pick-up programs, recycling rates have dropped over the last decade, in part because Americans consume so many beverages outside the home.

Sixty-five percent of aluminum cans were recycled in 1992, for example, but only 49 percent were salvaged in 2001, the lowest rate in 15 years, according to a study released this week by the Container Recycling Institute. As a consequence, the report concluded, more than 760,000 tons of aluminum cans were thrown away last year.

That is the equivalent of about two Empire State Buildings, 3,800 Boeing 747's or nearly half a million Ford Mustangs.

"There is no good reason why this nation is not doing a better job of recycling its cans and bottles," Mr. Jeffords said.

That Mr. Jeffords even succeeded in reviving the recycling debate, which has virtually lain dormant in the Capitol for the last decade, is a symbolic victory, prompting environmental groups nationwide to rally in support of his bill.

Nevertheless, the legislative effort to shift the burden onto industry has elicited fierce opposition from soft drink and beer makers, who depict it as a tax on consumers, not to mention themselves.

Under the bill, Americans would have to pay an upfront deposit of at least 10 cents on virtually all cans and bottles, which could be redeemed upon recycling, essentially superseding the 11 states that already have bottle laws.

Until beverage companies reached the 80 percent recycling rate, they would have to surrender much of the deposits they amass from wasted containers to the states, an amount that could easily reach into the billions of dollars.

"We have a fundamental problem understanding why there's always this focus on beverage containers," said Drew Davis, vice president for federal affairs at the National Soft Drink Association, arguing that bottles and cans account for less than 4 percent of the garbage generated by most cities. "Why not focus on paper or yard waste?"

Beyond that, the industry contends, it would have to spend up to $10 billion to get a national recycling system operating. Warehouses and trucks would have to make room for empty bottles. Drivers would have to make more trips, requiring more fuel. Much of the cost, the industry warns, would be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices.


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