The Bottle Battle 

Victory is in sight for a long-deferred deposit on recyclable containers.

Next week at the Agricenter, Memphis will host the first-ever public forum on the Tennessee "bottle bill"— the proposed five-cent deposit on beverage containers that promises to reduce litter and boost Tennessee's container-recycling rate from the current 10 percent to a projected 80 percent or better.

Considering the Bluff City's importance in manufacturing and politics — as well as its role as the largest generator of solid waste in the state — it's fitting that such an event is being held here. Politics, manufacturing, and waste generation have all seen dramatic shifts in attitudes on container deposits.

Manufacturing: While the Tennessee bill has key allies among a number of other sectors, from tourism and handicapped services to farmers and county mayors, most observers concede that if the bill passes next year, it will be due primarily to the unprecedented support of the manufacturing sector.

Over the last three years, all three of the leading container-commodity trade groups — the Aluminum Association, the Glass Packaging Institute, and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers — have abandoned their longstanding opposition to bottle bills. Numerous individual companies have sent representatives to Nashville to meet with lawmakers and testify for the bill in committee hearings.

The reason for their support, they say, is simple: No other recycling tool comes close to bottle bills in recovering both the high quantity and high quality of container scrap they need to meet their production, energy, and sustainability goals. When containers are worth money, they are returned and recycled.

While this change of heart has not been widely shared by the beverage companies — to put it mildly — at least one bottler, Nestle Waters, has declared that it too supports container-deposit programs, providing they are self-supporting, convenient for customers, include no "hidden handling fees," apply equally to all beverages (e.g., plain bottled waters as well as flavored ones), and include provisions that support, not harm, existing curbside and other recycling programs.

Supporters of Tennessee's extensively vetted bill believe it now meets all these criteria or can be tweaked to do so by the time the legislature returns in 2010.

Politics: The careful revamping of the Tennessee bill — plus the fact that some 80 percent of Tennesseans say they support a container deposit — has earned allies not just among private industries. Dozens of legislators from both parties now say that they, too, can vote for the measure, and at least 15 have signed on as sponsors, including five from Shelby County.

Among the key revisions:

• Empties are returned not to a store but to any of hundreds of independent "redemption centers." These may be owned by individuals, nonprofits, scrap dealers, local governments, and existing convenience centers and businesses, including grocery stores.

• Redemption centers are supported by the value of the scrap, plus a penny-per-container handling fee from a central fund of unclaimed deposits, accrued interest, and any fines or penalties.

• The state or a designated third party will manage the program, with all costs covered by the fund.

• Beverage distributors pay only a flat fee of 1/8 of a cent per container, which will be used strictly to continue their funding of the state's county litter crews, litter education, and Keep Tennessee Beautiful.

• Because they will deal directly with scrap buyers, redemption centers may, where appropriate, accept nondeposit recyclables from the public, such as newspaper and glass jars.

Solid Waste: Tennessee is still struggling to boost its residential recycling rates above 10 percent. With the state's consumption of beer, soda, energy drinks, etc. inching toward 5 billion containers annually, that translates to nearly a quarter-million tons of material — worth anywhere from $50 million to $100 million a year — going straight into our landfills.

Even in a city like Memphis, where curbside and other recycling is widely available, less than 15 percent of containers are recycled. More than 90 percent of the city's 26 percent recycling rate in 2007 came from yard trimmings — certainly an important effort, but yard waste doesn't contain the enormous energy potential of recycled aluminum, glass, and plastic.

It's bottle-bill time in Tennessee.

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