Sunday, June 10, 2007
Bottle bills proven to clean up trash
(First appear in the Orlando Sentinel June 10, 2007)
As much as I love living in Florida, I hate the way people here are so careless about litter.
Why is there trash everywhere? What are people thinking -- or not thinking -- when they flick that cigarette butt out a car window or toss an empty bag from their fast-food lunch on the ground?
Litter is ubiquitous. Like an ugly scab that refuses to heal, it's visible along roadsides, at the beach, on bike trails, in urban and suburban areas, in the bottom of lakes and floating in rivers. You're just as likely to find trash in parking lots as you are in undeveloped stretches of forest and fields.
Garbage even mars those few remote sites where Florida wilderness has managed to remain relatively intact -- our parks, recreational areas and nature preserves.
I just came back from the well-maintained boardwalk at Oakland Nature Preserve. After meandering along the raised walkway beneath a lush leafy canopy, the trail ended at Lake Apopka. I looked out over the railing into the murky water expecting to see purple gallinules and maybe a gator or two. Instead, I saw a couple of crushed cans, a swelled liter bottle of soda and several crumpled fast-food wrappers. It doesn't make sense that people who care about nature enough to wander deep into the woods would spoil the very landscape they came to enjoy.
I'm talking trash here. Crushed cans, broken bottles, Styrofoam cups, plastic bags, cigarette butts and the wrappings from take-out food -- the list goes on and on. It doesn't have to be like this.
When I lived on Cape Cod, roadside litter was almost nonexistent. That may have been because of the bottle bill, a highly effective incentive enacted by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1983. The bottle bill put a 5-cent surcharge on the purchase of every beer, soft drink and carbonated-water container sold in the state. For each can or bottle returned to a redemption center -- and centers are in easy-to-reach places such as grocery stores -- the consumer earns back one nickel.
A nickel might sound like insignificant change, but they can add up. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, nearly 18 billion cans and bottles were returned under the bottle bill from 1991 to 2002. That's nearly $900 million that went back into consumers' pockets in 10 years.
Florida doesn't have a bottle bill. Neither do 39 other states. But the 11 states that do -- Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon, California, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan and Delaware -- are where one-quarter of all Americans live. That's a lot of people redeeming cans and bottles for cash.
Canada is also on top of the action -- British Columbia was the first place in North America to enact a beverage-container-recovery system back in 1970. Today, all but two of Canada's 13 provinces have taken similar steps to reduce litter. And bottle bills do reduce litter. Litter from beverage containers was slashed as much as 84 percent in seven of the states with bottle bills, according to government-funded studies conducted before and after bottle-bill laws were enacted. More significantly, the same studies found that the total amount of throwaway trash was reduced as much as 65 percent. That means bottle bills do more than reduce the number of cans and bottles thrown on the ground and into water; they bolster consumer awareness about the harmful effect of littering in general.
Bottom line: Bottle bills work. So why hasn't Florida stepped aboard the bottle-bill bandwagon?
It did once, sort of.
Back in 1990, a grass-roots campaign to initiate a bottle bill was waged in the Sunshine State, but it failed to win legislative approval. Since then, the only related legislative action in Florida was an ineffective bill called Advanced Disposal Fees (ADF). Implemented from 1993 through 1995, ADF hardly made a dent in the reduction of litter and bottle recovery. That poor showing was due, in large part, to the number of containers exempt from taxation.
According to estimates by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, by January 1995, 99 percent of all beer and soft drink containers did not qualify for coverage under the ADF legislation.
I think it's time to try again.
Florida should join forces with seven other states -- Arkansas, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia -- campaigning to initiate bottle-bill laws -- real, effective laws, not Band-Aid fixes like ADF.
Florida has such innate beauty. Why should we let our state's most precious asset -- its unparalleled landscape -- be blemished by throwaway bottles and cans when a well-documented, proven remedy is available?
This is one of the few times when is not out of line to "talk trash." Contact your legislative representatives today, and let them know how you feel. Ask to have a bottle bill enacted. Penny by penny, person by person, problems get fixed. Solutions don't get any simpler than that.