No deposit, no return: UM study says bottle laws curb litter

Some ideas just won't go away. Researchers with the University of Maryland have taken another look at bottle-deposit laws and found that they actually do reduce litter without undermining recycling of other waste items.

Asking consumers to pony up a nickel or dime per bottle - which is refundable when the empties are brought back - has curtailed litter in states with bottle-deposit laws by 30 to 64 percent, the researchers found. 

The UM study, released Wednesday, was sponsored by the Abell Foundation and the Waterfront Partnership, a nonprofit group of Inner Harbor businesses and institutions that's pushing to clean up Baltimore's harbor and streams.

Plastic and glass drink bottles make up as much as 20 percent of litter, but are among the most visible items, says Laurie Schwartz, the partnership's executive director. With the city and Baltimore County facing a state mandate before long to reduce the trash cluttering the area's water ways, Schwartz said advocates are looking for cost-effective ways to accomplish that.

Swayed by objections from retailers and bottle makers, Maryland lawmakers have balked at bottle-deposit legislation in the past. A bill introduced in 2007 by Del. Peter Hammen, D-Baltimore city, never got out of committee. Bills in 2010 and last year aimed at restaurants and bars also faltered.

But 10 states have bottle-return programs, and others are considering it, according to the report by UM's Environmental Finance Center. Neighboring Delaware is the only state to back out, the study says, repealing its nickel-a-bottle deposit in 2010 in favor of a broader recycling program with a 4-cent nonrefundable fee.  Delaware's program has struggled since, and revenues are running short of projections, the study says.

States that charge deposits on bottles generally see improved recycling, the study found. While Maryland communities are meeting the state's goal of recycling 39 percent of their refuse, places in California and New York where bottle-deposit programs are in effect see 60 percent or higher recycling rates.

The study already has won over one lawmaker, Del. John A. Olszewsk Jr.  The eastern Baltimore County Democrat has introduced a bill, HB1115, that would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to recommend a bottle-deposit program. He said he was prompted to act after seeing the "astonishing" number of drink bottles collected in a trash boom strung across Herring Run where it empties into Back River.

Some states have raised tens of millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits, but the UM report cautions against viewing this as a revenue source, noting that the more successful the programs are at getting people to return bottles, the less money they raise.

"I don't think the intent is to squeeze money out of folks," said Olszewski.  "It's to reduce litter and clean up our waterways."

The bottle-deposit bill makes a return appearance in Annapolis as environmental advocates continue to struggle to get legislation passed targeting another source of litter - plastic retail bags.

Schwartz said advocates still want bag legislation to pass this year, but hope to at least tee up the bottle issue for action in 2013.

"At least this year, we'll have the facts," Schwartz said. For a summary, go here.  To read the full report, go here.

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