Five cents for common sense on bottles and cans

It's one of those things that make sense but we do not do: Have a nickel deposit on every bottle and can of beer, soda and all the other liquid beverages we drink. Maryland does not have it. Some states do. Every state should.

I first looked into why Maryland is a no-deposit/no-return state 30 years ago, having been raised where this was done all the time. There have been attempts over the years to get a bottle-deposit law passed in Maryland, but it was always shot down. Tom Horton, my former columnist colleague at The Sun, once cited polls showing that as many as seven out of 10 Marylanders supported the idea. "But," Horton wrote, "industry lobbyists, as many as 26 in a single legislative session, always defeated it."

And "industry lobbyists" are at it again. There's another attempt under way to get a deposit system through the General Assembly this winter, and, of course, we can't have this sort of common-sense law without a fight and claims of calamity.

"The proposed bottle deposit ... creates a new tax on consumers who purchase beverages in containers," says the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association. "A bottle deposit will damage business, destroy valuable Maryland jobs, upend current curbside recycling programs, increase prices to consumers, and make Maryland a dumping ground for empty recyclables from other states."

It never hurts to call a nickel deposit "a new tax on consumers."

But what's being proposed by Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore state delegate who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, is not a tax. It's an extra charge that you — or the Boys Scouts and Girls Scouts — can get back if you just return the bottles and cans that carry a Maryland deposit stamp.

If you've never lived in one of the 10 states where this is done, here's how it works:

Every bottle or can that goes into the massive consumer market has a value of at least a nickel. The deposit provides an incentive for the bottle's return and reuse.

This is old-school recycling.

When I was a kid in Massachusetts, we conducted bottle drives to raise money for Little League uniforms. People saved their "tonic" bottles and, instead of redeeming them at the local supermarket themselves, they gave them to the Little Leaguers who showed up at the door. The Little League got cash from the local supermarket. The supermarket sent the bottles back to the beverage distributor. The distributor washed the bottles and used them again.

This wasn't some crunchy idea that grew out of the first Earth Day; this was old-timey New England common sense at work.

These days, in Massachusetts and the other states that have it, the bottle deposit system works right alongside curbside recycling programs.

Maryland has recycling programs, but McIntosh says we're only recycling about 25 percent of the estimated 4 billion bottles and aluminum cans that come through our consumer market every year. "In states where they have deposits," she says, "the returns are three times that."

Recycling is great. Baltimore and the Maryland counties have made huge progress on that front. But obviously not enough. Anyone who has ever seen the Inner Harbor or Back River after a big rain can tell you that.

So, make each bottle or can worth a nickel, and you suddenly have a monetary incentive for people not otherwise inclined to recycle or pick up trash.

Sounds good, but there's predictable resistance. For one thing, retailers don't want to take the bottles and cans back, even with fully automated reclamation.

"They don't want to become reclamation centers," says McIntosh.

So she and her co-sponsors — Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. from Baltimore and Sen. Brian E. Frosh from Montgomery — have made an adjustment to the conventional bottle-deposit system found in other states: They propose to add the nickel at the wholesale level.

"And the wholesalers can hold that nickel for 45 days," McIntosh says, citing another incentive — the big beverage distributors get to earn some interest on the five-cent deposits they collect on the thousands of bottles and cans they sell to retailers.

After 45 days, the deposit money goes to the state.

The state, in turn, pays out the nickel deposits to the reclamation centers, plus a 3-cent-per-container handling fee.

The handling fees come from a new fund established by the state comptroller for deposits on unredeemed containers. (No one expects participation in the return program to be 100 percent, thus the "unredeemed fund." Even in states with thriving programs, the top return rates are about 75 percent, according to the research McIntosh cites.)

I'm sure that, once the hearings commence early in March, "industry lobbyists" will pounce all over McIntosh's legislation as too complicated and burdensome. But it's not. It's actually pretty clever, and loaded with that thing we need more of in the age of climate change and population growth: common sense.

Five cents can buy a lot of it.

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