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May 14, 2014

BENNETT: Cleaning up could be as simple as a dime

— Scan the roadside on any Indiana highway, and you might spot an empty pop bottle or two.

Or two dozen. Or 200.

Drink bottles have become our litter du jour. They compose an estimated 40 to 60 percent of all litter, according to the Michigan Environmental Council.

Our northern neighbors have studied the issue extensively. Michigan is one of 10 states with a container-deposit law. Michiganders enacted their “bottle bill” in 1976, placing a 10-cent deposit on the drink’s price that consumers can get refunded when they return the empty bottle. As a result, 96 percent of those containers get returned and recycled.

By contrast, Indiana has no bottle-deposit law. As a result, people gulp down their soft drinks, beer, wine coolers, liquor, juice, tea, sports drinks or bottled waters and then carelessly toss the plastic, glass or metal container into streets, yards, creeks, farm fields, storefronts, downtown sidewalk flower boxes and the banks of Indiana rivers.

Michigan looks clean, generally. Indiana, not so much.

That should change, and if Hoosier legislators show some determination, it will.

This summer, a legislative committee will study “every possibility that would increase recycling” in Indiana, as Rep. David Wolkins put it.

He’s a Republican from Warsaw in the Indiana House. More specifically, Wolkins chairs the House Environmental Affairs Committee. In this winter’s session of the General Assembly, the committee dealt with House Bill 1183 through its passage. Alas, it wasn’t an actual bottle bill, but it could lead to one.

House Bill 1183 requires recyclers and solid-waste districts to report data on the materials they process, so Indiana can figure out just how little Hoosiers recycle. Wolkins said the best estimates range from 20 to 25 percent of municipal waste, which puts us near the bottom nationally.

The bill sets a goal for Indiana to raise that to 50 percent. And, it sets up a summer study committee to analyze all possibilities to boost recycling of materials that fill Hoosier landfills and pollute waterways, roadways, cities and countrysides. Those possibilities include a bottle-deposit law.

When asked if he’s evolved on the bottle-deposit law issue, Wolkins candidly said in a telephone interview recently, “Yeah, I have. I’ve been adamantly opposed to it in the past.” He’s open to the possibility. “So I’m neutral on that now,” he added.

Results in other states have nudged Wolkins to that viewpoint.

“It’s no question that [bottle-deposit laws] work,” he said. “If you have a bottle-deposit law in effect, it pretty much takes care of the roadside bottles.”

Under a typical bottle law, a retailer pays a distributor a deposit for each bottle or can purchased. Consumers pay the retailer for the deposit upon purchase. The consumer returns the empties to a retailer or redemption center and receives a refunded deposit.

Retailers recover the deposit from the distributor, and often a handling fee (of 1 to 3 cents) to help cover the costs of dealing with the returned containers, according to BottleBill.org.

Retailers and bottling firms have lobbied against bottle bills in Indiana over the years. Memories of the pre-No Deposit, No Return era in the 1960s fuel some opposition.

“Grocers had a bad experience with it back in the ’60s,” Wolkins said.

Consumers could return glass bottles and receive a refund of a few cents per bottle. But other trash often wound up inside the glass pop bottles. They were messy, too. Eventually, people bought fewer refillable glass bottles, when cheaper, disposable aluminum cans emerged.

As litter grew, bottle bills came into existence in the 1970s and ’80s. Michigan adopted its law in 1976, and its roadside trash dwindled significantly.

Such laws still face opposition. Wolkins sees an option that could lessen the backlash. Solid-waste districts around the state have expressed an interest in handling the returned bottles, he said. Also, glass companies that once fought a bottle-deposit law now support it, needing the materials to recycle and reuse.

Plus, public support is high. A survey last year by the Bowen Center for Public Affairs at Ball State University found that 73 percent of Hoosiers backed a refundable container deposit program.

The variety and volume of bottled drinks has exploded in the 21st century. Unfortunately, it takes a financial incentive to keep lots of people, including millions of Hoosiers, from turning the empties into litter.

The summer study group will hear from other states, industry people and environmental organizations who deal with the cleanups. Let’s hope the study produces action and change, soon. Indiana has beauty under its litter.

— Mark Bennett writes for the Tribune-Star in Terre Haute, a CNHI newspaper. Reach him via email atmark.bennett@tribstar.com

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