Bottle litter is an eyesore — and a hazard

As a recent transplant from Canada, there were many differences I expected living in Baltimore: humid summers, less colorful money, more colorful politics. Pleasantly unexpected was the amount of green space and the rudimentary cycling network that serves me well traveling between Hopkins campuses.

However, both are tarnished by an unfamiliar foe: discarded bottles and cans. In parks, they are an eyesore, but on roads they are also a hazard. Even though Baltimoreans seem to consider yellow (and often red) lights a suggestion, it’s not traffic I’m constantly dodging, but shards of glass threatening to shred a tire.

Back home, more than 85 percent of beverage containers are returned for reuse or recycling — which includes over 90 percent for aluminum cans and glass. In Maryland, the rate is closer to 50 percent. This isn’t some unique Canadian characteristic; in Michigan, the return rate is over 95 percent. The answer to why this discrepancy exists is simple: deposit systems incentivize returns.

These systems, where a small fee is added when purchasing a beverage container and given back when the container is returned, exist in 10 states and have been shown to increase recycling. This is important: drink containers make up more than 5 percent of Maryland’s total municipal waste heading to landfills. Producing cans from recycled aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy cost of using new aluminum. And, of course, more containers being returned means keeping the currently 2 billion containers a year that aren’t returned from winding up in our parks and roadsides. Less waste equals less public money spent on waste cleanup, and selfishly for me, less broken glass littering Baltimore’s bike lanes.

So why hasn’t Maryland adopted a deposit system? Well, we have tried: In each of the last six years, legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly — and failed. The bills vary in detail, but the gist is the same: Maryland has a waste problem, we need to fix it, and a deposit system is a great step forward.

There are powerful opponents, exemplified by a 2013 Sun letter written by a beverage industry representative. Their take: Deposit systems may have consequences for other recycling systems in Maryland. A comprehensive analysis of a deposit system for Maryland by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore and the Abell Foundation addressed this, and found that while there may be a decrease in revenue from municipal recycling streams, there also likely will be decreased costs to litter cleanup and waste management. Expectedly, industry would oppose any regulation that may lead to a loss of profit, but it’s important to remember that a deposit system is not a tax — all money spent at the cash register can be gained back when returning. Don’t want to make the effort? There will be someone who will.

Back home, door-to-door “bottle drive” collections for school groups are a norm, as are people collecting discarded containers from roadsides to make a few extra dollars.

Perhaps the upcoming session of the legislature will be the lucky seventh time for a deposit system bill. Until then, I’ll keep dodging the glass.

Mike Benusic is a physician and masters of public health student at Johns Hopkins. His email is mbenusic@gmail.com.

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