Commentary : IN MY OPINION

08/03/03 The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon)

by Carol Royal

As a new migrant to Portland from New Jersey, I salute the emphasis Oregon puts on environmental issues. For that reason I want to follow up on a recent story in Commentary ("Recycling: Can we still believe?" July 6) that discussed consumer concerns about the results of local recycling, or what the industry calls "downstream" programs.

Curbside programs that recover newspapers and steel food cans have been effective. Yet we face growing proportions of aluminum cans and bottles consumed away from home at work and at play. Throwaway containers contribute 40 percent to 60 percent of the litter in our public spaces.

While downstream considerations are important, many of us fail to appreciate the much larger adverse upstream impact--mineral extraction and production--on the environment and energy use from our consumer habits.

The recycling rate for used aluminum beverage cans has sunk to its lowest point since 1980, according to the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va., a nonprofit organization that tracks beverage container sales and recycling trends nationwide. About 50.7 billion cans, more than half of the domestic sales in 2001, were not recycled, the institute says. That same year Americans bought 351 aluminum beverage cans per person -- twice as many as in 1980 -- and wasted 70 more cans per person than 20 years ago.

Pound for pound, beverage container manufacturing requires more energy and produces more pollutants than almost any other consumer product on the market today.

Millions of tons of greenhouse gases and other air and water pollutants are byproducts of processing virgin materials to make new throwaway packaging.

Costs to state and local governments for disposal, recycling and litter cleanup of beverage containers

are thinly disguised corporate subsidies. That's because too often corporations ignore the social costs of collection and disposal for recyclables as well as electronics, mercury-containing products, batteries, fluorescent tubes and tires.

Beverage manufacturers, bottlers and distributors do not want the responsibility for the throwaway containers. And bottle-bill opponents have spent huge sums of money to defeat ballot initiatives with industry opponents outspending proponents by as much as 30-to-1, the Container Recycling Institute says. In Columbia, Mo., for example, beverage and grocery companies waged what might be the most expensive local initiative campaign in the city's history. Last year, they succeeded in repealing the nation's only local deposit ordinance.

In 1996, Oregon's Measure 37--an expansion of the existing bottle bill to include noncarbonated drinks

--was soundly defeated after environmental proponents spent $400,000 against the beverage manufacturers and supermarket chains' $3.3 million.

Such defeats can be attributed in large part to the tremendous influence of well-funded, politically powerful lobbies on elected officials. Soft drinks are profitable, notably in sales of bottles and cans sold individually for immediate consumption.

The president of Data Bank USA has said, "Something's going on to raise profitability, and the answer is packaging. . . ." We must get that packaging -- the container -- back, and higher can deposits can help. In Michigan, where the deposit is 10 cents, the annual aluminum can recycling rate is 95 percent.

A federal solution, for example, a national bottle bill, could raise aluminum can recycling from the current rate of less than half to one of 80 percent or more nationwide. That would save the annual energy equivalent of 10 million barrels of oil, and cut annual greenhouse gas production by 1.9 million tons.

Carol Royal of Northwest Portland is an environmental design consultant. She founded the nonprofit Trenton Materials Exchange in Trenton, N.J., in 1997:

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