New Plan to Remove Plastic Bottles and Cans Has Bipartisan Support

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I support a piece of legislation before the General Assembly because it plays a key role in my retirement planning.

Each year in Tennessee we put a quarter of a million tons of bottles and cans into landfills. They take up space and, more importantly, they will be there virtually forever. Aluminum companies spend millions on electric power to produce cans from bauxite, when recycled aluminum cans are vastly cheaper.

The younger generation has started a movement to protest the ubiquity of plastic water bottles headed to landfills. “Forever in a Landfill” is a slogan that resonates. Homeowners, especially in the suburbs and rural areas, are plagued by plastic bottles and aluminum cans thrown into their yards. Yet only 10 percent of aluminum cans are recycled.

But efforts to set up real recycling programs have been squelched in the past by opposition from distributors and retailers who simply do not want the onerous burden of running a recycling program and, in the case of retailers, taking up space with returned containers. But some companies, like Nestle (a major player in bottled water), are taking a responsible approach. The glass industry, the aluminum industry, and the plastic-bottle industry are coming to the place where they support a serious recycling effort. They don’t want to be the bad guys.

Here’s how it would work and why it has a chance of being passed.

The distributor of glass, plastic, or aluminum containers for beer, soda, water, energy drinks, juice, and iced tea would pay five cents a bottle into a fund administered by the state of Tennessee. The distributor would pay 1/8th of a cent per bottle to help set up the fund and pay for existing litter grants that go to each county.

The retailer reimburses the distributor the five cents per bottle.

The consumer reimburses the retailer the deposit. But the retailer is done. They do not have to redeem the bottles or cans.

The consumer takes the glass, plastic, and aluminum containers to one of 500 redemption centers. (That’s 500 new private businesses and 2,000 “green” jobs.) The consumer gets the deposit back.

The redemption centers sell the containers to a processor and the processor is reimbursed from the fund. The processor also gets the recycled containers for processing into new containers.

The “profit” that operates the program is paid by litterbugs and people who do not recycle, and lose their deposit. Everyone else gets their money back.

The key to making this work is that empty plastic bottles, glass bottles, and aluminum cans will have value. The profit motive kicks in. People can pick up containers on the side of the road for a little extra cash—hence my retirement plan. People can also start businesses picking up cans and bottles from homeowners.

If the people who make cans and bottles have a steady supply of recyclable material, cheaper than using raw materials, then the cost of cans and bottles should decline.

Is it harder than just tossing the bottles and cans? Yes. But is it worth it to clean up the countryside and reduce landfill use? Imagine how much less imported oil we will have to buy if plastic is recycled into new bottles. How much electricity is saved by recycling aluminum?

Supporters of the bill estimate that the current rate of about 10 percent of our containers being recycled would jump to a rate of 85 percent.

The bill has bipartisan support, with 13 Democratic and four Republican co-sponsors at present. The major opponents of the bill are beer distributors.

This recycling “circle of life” will create new businesses and jobs. It will also be a floor upon which even more recycling efforts may be built.

And all of us old people will have a second job, out in the fresh air, to supplement our Social Security.

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