He trudged into an ankle-deep carpet of malt liquor cans, water bottles, plastic cups, and other containers that have washed up into the reeds fringing this Chesapeake Bay tributary.
“Wow. This is unbelievable -– so much trash, and a lot of it’s bottles,” said Nees, a senior research associate at the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center.
Maryland consumers buy 4.1 billion cans and bottles for beverages every year -– but only 22 percent of these containers are recycled, according to a recycling study that Rees co-authored.
That means that more than three quarters of bottles and cans in Maryland are still getting thrown into landfills or onto roadsides, where rain often washes them down stormdrains to foul into streams and rivers.
Maryland is recycling fewer of its beverage containers than the 35 percent national average -– and only a fraction of the 67 percent recycled in New York, or the 97 percent in Michigan, according to Nees’ study.
Why the difference? 10 states with much higher recycling rates than Maryland have drinking container deposit laws. These add five or ten cents to the cost of a can or bottle. Consumers get the money back when they return the empties to stores.
These "bottle bill" programs use an economic incentive to transform average citizens into paid street cleaners. “These types of incentives have proven to be very, very effective,” Nees said.
On Monday, Maryland State Delegate Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Environmental Matters Committee, held a press conference at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with fellow lawmakers to announce similar legislation for the state that would create five cent deposits for cans and bottles. She said the bill’s goal is to more than triple the state’s recycling rate for drinking containers, to 75 percent.
“There is a great deal of cost that goes into cleaning streets and also cleaning up the streams and the Chesapeake Bay and the Inner Harbor,” McIntosh told WYPR 88.1 FM public radio in Baltimore. “I think you would not only would get citizens more serious about recycling. I think you’d save cities and municipalities money.”
Baltimore, for example, spends about $10 million a year cleaning up about 144 tons of litter, according to the University of Maryland report.
Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, endorsed the so-called “Recycle For Real” bill. “Much of the Inner Harbor and too many of our creeks and rivers in Maryland have become receptacles for our waste, for trash and for other pollution,” Baker said. “This legislation will help change that. It also will turn trash into money in our pockets, and spark awareness in our throw-away culture.”
Container deposit bills in Maryland and other states have been fiercely resisted by not only the beer and soda industries, but also supermarket and convenience store chains, which see deposits as a kind of a tax that could cut into their profits. Municipalities, including Baltimore City, opposed a “bottle bill” in Maryland in 2007, in part because they did not want competition with their existing curbside recycling programs.
Ellen Valentino, executive director of the Maryland Beverage Association, argues that these city and county-run curbside recycling programs work well enough.
“It will be costly to consumers in this state to increase the price at retail sale, and to set up what would absolutely be a dual, separate recycling system for less than 10 percent of the waste stream,” Valentino said. “Ultimately, the consumers of the state will pay for this.”
But is that true? Have the costs of drinks gone up in the states with deposit laws?
No, according to Nees, the University of Maryland researcher. “We were just not able to find any evidence that that was the case,” Nees said of increased costs for consumers. “The fact is, it’s a market based system, and the price is going to reflect what consumers are willing to pay.”
In other words, beverage companies tend to absorb the deposit fees, not consumers. This is because soda and beer sellers in deposit law states must still compete with neighboring states that lack deposit laws.
The study by Nees and colleagues found not only no price differences for beverages in states with deposit laws vs. those without, but also difference in drink consumption. Nees said the container deposits have proven extraordinarily effective and popular with the public. The 10 states with these deposits saw their bottle and can litter drop by 75 percent.
“Trash is a huge problem … and it impacts our economy significantly, because people don’t want to come to a harbor that’s covered in trash,” said Tina Meyers, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper with a nonprofit group called Blue Water Baltimore (pictured at right). “This bottle bill is going to be a win-win for everyone. It’s a win for the health of our communities, and a win for the economy.”
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation