Deposit opponents miss the message in the bottle

A chance to make some money, help the environment – what's not to like?

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more," I say, quoting Shakespeare's Henry V, the breach being not the hole in the wall at Harfleur, but the gap between who Marylanders are as recyclers and who we could be.

How's that for reducing a fine literary allusion into a mundane practicality?

But I mean well. I'm talking about the gap between being pretty good recyclers of bottles and cans and being nearly excellent recyclers of same.

Into that breach comes the bottle-deposit bill, now before the General Assembly.

Here's the idea: Put a refundable nickel deposit on every can or bottle of beverage sold in Maryland and we might increase our rate of bottle and can recycling from the present 41 percent to as high as 75 percent. (In Vermont, where the crunchy people live, the rate is 85 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute.)

In case you just took your seat in the theater, some quick background:

Some senators and delegates in Annapolis have filed a bill to establish a Maryland container deposit system similar to the one in Vermont and nine other states.

Add a nickel to the price of every container at the wholesale level, before they go into the retail market. Consumers get all those nickels back when they return containers to "reverse vending machines" that give a nickel for every bottle or can they insert. The reclamation machines are usually anchored near supermarkets, or on a patch of public land convenient to citizens.

The reclaimers get three pennies for every container they handle, and that money comes out of a fund established by the state comptroller from deposits on unredeemed containers.

That's essentially how it works.

Supporters of the bill say the state could significantly reduce the number of bottles and cans that end up in our streets and rivers if we offer the nickel-per-container incentive.

With about 4 billion such containers sold in Maryland every year, they say, there's room for a deposit system to augment the increasingly successful, but still underused, curbside recycling programs.

Of course, not everyone is ga-ga for this idea.

Some want to see the bill deep-sixed.

"Who's he that wishes so?" (Shakespeare again. Sorry.)

The Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League oppose the proposal because they fear it will undercut single-stream recycling efforts, says Bruce Bereano, the longtime Annapolis lobbyist.

The Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association opposes the legislation, dismissing it as an elaborate, job-killing scheme that will not achieve the intended result. Ellen Valentino, the lobbyist for that group, says Marylanders already are making significant progress in recycling bottles and cans; the deposit system isn't needed.

David Craig, the Harford County executive, wants no part of the proposed container deposit system, either.

"The bill sounds good," he wrote me after my first column on this subject a few weeks ago. "It just is not. State elected officials often are philosophers. County elected officials are pragmatists."

The Bel Air pragmatist says Harford already is one of the top recycling counties in the state, and second-lowest (behind Montgomery County) in the amount of trash it sends to a landfill. Craig suggested that few people will want to return a case of empty beer bottles for the $1.20 refund.

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