Earth Day Special: Washington’s Garbage is Oregon’s Gold

Blogger’s Note: This is the third entry in a series looking at the crime of littering. It is also an update in recognition of Earth Day 2009.

Here’s one way to stop a litterer: pay them.

Or rather, refund them. That’s what Oregon’s done since 1971, using a practice now followed in 12 states. Known as the “bottle bill,” the law bumps up the price of a beverage and hooks the consumer into recycling it by paying them back, in most of the states, a nickel per can or bottle. The policy aimed to not only decrease litter but increases recycling.

Washington, by contrast, was also a 1970s vanguard in a different method of combating its scattered garbage: a litter tax on about a dozen industries that generates $7 million a year for public awareness programs and clean up efforts, according to The Tax Foundation.

Which method was more effective? Judging by the sheer amount of cans and bottles I picked up along Bremerton’s Wheaton Waybelieved to account for 40 to 60 percent of litter — Oregon has a leg up on at least that brand of unsightly rubbish. A downside of the litter tax, points out The Tax Foundation’s Andrew Chamberlain, is that businesses simply pass on the tax to push up prices. “That means it will tax every consumer regardless of whether they litter, penalizing a large majority for the behavior of a tiny minority of litterers,” he wrote.

Oregon’s bottle bill, too, does increase costs. But such a policy creates economic incentive to recycle — not just bureaucracy, PR campaigns and state-sponsored cleanups. Oregon even recently added water and flavored water bottles to its list. “It’s about dang time,” an editorial in The News-Review of Roseburg said. says the policy cuts down on litter anywhere between 34 and 64 percent.

So what’s stopping us from starting it north of the Columbia River? Cost, mainly. “Bottle bills are expensive to carry out and maintain. They also undermine the good intentions of our citizens, who know how simple it is to affect the environment in a positive way,” said Craig Stevens, vice president of the American Beverage Association, in a letter to the New York Times about New York’s efforts to expand its already existing bottle bill.

Even Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality admits on its web site: “The law has been successful and popular, with high recycling rates and reduced litter but higher costs for grocers who have to redeem the containers.”

Still, such bottle bills have been popular in North America. Another interesting recycling incentive program is to the north, in British Columbia, home of the first ever bottle bill. There, retailers can tack on fees that pay for the recycling program, and when people bring their empty containers back in, they get a refund. They can only return 24 items in a given day to the same store where they were purchased, or to a “bottle depot.”

Alberta has a program similar to Oregon’s, but get this: bottles and cans under one liter gets a 10 cent refund, while ones over a liter get a quarter back. Medoubts you ever see a big plastic bottle on the side of the road in what some would call “The Texas of Canada.”

Other states and provinces that have similar laws to Oregon include Nova Scotia, California, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, Deleware, California and Hawaii.

So would a bottle bill cut down on litter better than the litter tax? Perhaps — but it would all depend on the cost of putting in place such a policy. At least in Oregon, it was a win-win-win, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission which cites these three pluses:

“Reduced Litter: In 1971, litter control was a primary reason for initiating the bottle bill.  Since then, the percentage of beverage containers among roadside litter has dropped from 40 percent to 6 percent.

Sustainability: The recycled containers are used to make hundreds of products including fleece jackets, carpeting, baseball bats, license plates, and insulation as well as new beverage containers.

Conservation: Recycling a ton of plastic bottles saves approximately 3.8 barrels of oil.  Recycling one pound of PET (polyethylene terphthalate) plastic bottles saves approximately 12,000 BTUs of energy.  In addition, using recycled materials uses 2/3 less energy than using raw (virgin) materials.”

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