Fight brews on Maryland drink deposit law

In a bid to boost recycling and reduce litter, a trio of lawmakers announced plans Monday to push for legislation that would levy a refundable nickel deposit on every beverage container sold in Maryland.

But the announcement drew prompt opposition from beverage distributors and merchants, who argued it would hurt their sales and employment, and undercut rather than help recycling.

Dels. Maggie McIntosh and John A. Olszewski Jr., Democrats representing Baltimore City and Baltimore County, respectively, said they would soon introduce a bill titled "Recycle for Real," which if passed would make Maryland just the 11th state to require deposits on all bottled and canned drinks sold.

Similar efforts in Annapolis have been stifled in past years by beverage industry and merchant opposition, but this bid may fare better with the backing of McIntosh, influential chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. Joined by a representative for Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, the lawmakers said the measure would give residents a financial incentive to stop tossing beverage containers.

"A majority of Marylanders would be astonished to learn how many beverage containers go unrecycled in our state," McIntosh said in a statement prepared for the announcement. "We have to do a better job of protecting our natural resources in a fiscally responsible way."

McIntosh said in an interview that this year's bill takes a new approach.

"This is not the bottle bill that's been introduced for years and years. It's different," she said.

About 4 billion beverage containers are sold annually in Maryland, advocates said, with 22 percent recycled into new bottles and cans, below the national rate of 35 percent. Many bottles and cans end up in landfills, and many wind up blighting stream banks, roadsides and parks. Baltimore spends about $10 million a year on litter cleanup and control efforts, according to supporters.

Baltimore's harbor and the Anacostia River in the Washington area are so blighted by litter that federal and state environmental agencies have directed local governments in each watershed to come up with plans for keeping trash out of the water. Plastic drink bottles make up about half the debris, according to Julie Lawson of the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Proponents argue that states with bottle and can deposits have roughly triple the container recycling rates as states without. They also suggested the program would raise revenues for cash-strapped local governments and reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions associated with manufacturing new containers. McIntosh said the United States needs to increase its use of recycled materials to cut the cost of manufacturing.

"Go out and stand on the 2,700 acres that used to be Bethlehem Steel," she said. "We've known it for 25 years. We ignored it in this country."

The initiative has drawn the support of a broad array of environmental groups, as well as the Waterfront Partnership, a coalition of harbor-area businesses and tourist attractions leading an effort to clean up the Inner Harbor. Glass bottle makers and aluminum manufacturer Alcoa also endorsed the bill.

Opposition was quick in coming, though, from beverage distributors, grocers and other retailers, who issued their own statement calling a container deposit "ill-conceived, outdated and ineffective." They pointed out that nine of the 10 states with deposit laws adopted them many years ago, and that Delaware repealed its deposit three years ago.

Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, argued that the deposit is just another tax in disguise and that it would undercut recycling. She said 80 percent of Marylanders have access to single-stream recycling, so additional recycling programs would be unnecessary and potentially confusing to residents.

"Everybody can do better at recycling," she said. "But if you look at where Maryland is today, with their curbside recycling, and look at the fact that beverage containers are just 4 percent of the solid-waste stream, why would you want to set up a redundant recycling stream for that?"

She suggested there would be "economic repercussions" to raising drink prices a nickel in a small state like Maryland, and that consumers would be motivated to go to neighboring states without deposits to pick up cheaper drinks.

An earlier version of this story misstated who supports Maryland's deposit initiative. Can manufacturers do not support it. The Sun regrets the error.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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