Dogwood Time, and the Litter is Sleazy

A container deposit law would help clear our trashed-up landscape

There's a similar move afoot in the Tennessee General Assembly that could constitute a small but important step in combating litter. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Russell Johnson (R-Loudon) and Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) would put a five-cent, refundable deposit on aluminum, glass or plastic drink containers sold in Tennessee. It is roundly opposed by the beverage industry and its powerful lobby, not to mention former House Speaker and Gov. Ned McWherter, a beer distributor, who has ex-officio access to many legislators.

They don't want the hassle and expense of responsibility for the litter they help create and dispense. There is, potentially, a lot of it. Tennesseans consumed an estimated 3.9 billion beverages last year, including 2.2 billion in aluminum cans, a billion in plastic bottles and 700 million in glass bottles. As you can readily see by walking down the street or looking out your car window, not all of those were recycled, although there is a ready market for those used containers, or disposed of in authorized trash collection systems.

That money would be lost if the current "bottle bill" passes.

Glory be. It's one of those rare years when the redbuds hang on until the dogwoods bloom. Even the azaleas are coming alive, and the exotic, non-native ornamental shrubs and trees, like the weeping or Japanese cherries, are adding color to the greening up of Knoxville's spring. Woods, lawns and highway corridors are alive with blossoms.

To say it's gorgeous here would be an understatement, if the paths of glory weren't so littered with the detritus of the careless, those who seem to believe that throwaway articles, like bottles, cans, fast-food wrappers, plastic bags and those awful white foam containers are to throw in the wind and let lie where they will.

Ralph McGill, the legendary Atlanta Constitution editor who campaigned against the grain of his Old South for racial equality, grew up in East Tennessee, at Soddy, and he used to say that this area of the country, for a few weeks in spring and a like period in fall, was as beautiful as anywhere in the world. He was right about that. He saw the discarded trash along our roadways, too, and decried it until his death in 1969. McGill saw more progress toward establishing racial justice around here than he did toward preserving our natural beauty from the litterers among us, although his adopted state of Georgia is one of 11 states to have enacted a law, after McGill was gone, requiring a deposit on beverage containers.

There's a similar move afoot in the Tennessee General Assembly that could constitute a small but important step in combating litter. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Russell Johnson (R-Loudon) and Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) would put a five-cent, refundable deposit on aluminum, glass or plastic drink containers sold in Tennessee. It is roundly opposed by the beverage industry and its powerful lobby, not to mention former House Speaker and Gov. Ned McWherter, a beer distributor, who has ex-officio access to many legislators.

They don't want the hassle and expense of responsibility for the litter they help create and dispense. There is, potentially, a lot of it. Tennesseans consumed an estimated 3.9 billion beverages last year, including 2.2 billion in aluminum cans, a billion in plastic bottles and 700 million in glass bottles. As you can readily see by walking down the street or looking out your car window, not all of those were recycled, although there is a ready market for those used containers, or disposed of in authorized trash collection systems.

In the states that have a nickel deposit law, about 70 to 80 percent of the containers sold are redeemed for the deposit. The rest of the collected deposits remain with the state. The arithmetic says the state would keep more than $50 million in revenue from unredeemed deposits.

For that reason, some opponents of container deposits characterize such a deposit requirement as a "tax." It certainly isn't one, as every nickel collected can and should be recovered by the container's purchaser or user.

For several decades, beverage bottlers have paid a tax that totals about $5 million a year for the privilege of staying free of a deposit law. That revenue is dedicated to organizations such as Keep Tennessee Beautiful. The Knoxville affiliate, Keep Knoxville Beautiful, realized about $40,000 from it in the last year. That money would be lost if the current "bottle bill" passes.

That should be a temporary problem, in that the "in lieu of deposit" tax should rightly be passed on to the fast food industry and other providers of "throw-away" containers, who also contribute mightily to the habits of litterers.

We don't mean to suggest that the providers of containers are the real culprits in the matter, just the enablers. Our commercial culture produces too much in the way of non-reusable packaging to be let clear off the hook. But it's the people who don't care that our cities and towns and countryside are defaced by litter—and who apparently think we don't care either—who are committing what amounts to criminal conduct. If the bottle bill passes, the state could use some of the unredeemed deposit revenue to increase enforcement of current littering laws, whose penalties should also be increased. That would help stop the trashing of the landscape.

Let your legislators know that a container deposit law and stiffer penalties for littering are in their interests as well as yours and ours. We can nickel and dime our thoroughfares back to their scenic selves with the right push on the lawmakers in Nashville.

Meantime, this note to inveterate litterers: You know who you are, and you know that your habit is a criminal act. Stop tossing stuff away like East Tennessee is your personal trash heap. If you insist on pitching your stuff like nobody cares, toss it in your parlor, not ours.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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