© 2021 WYPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Dirty Secret of Maryland’s Recycling Programs


 I was on vacation in Michigan and I was amazed to see no bottles or cans littering the sides of roads, or in Lake Michigan or the Galien River where I went kayaking and sailing.

This struck me, because it was in sharp contrast to Maryland.  Everywhere I go in my home state, I see cans and bottles strewn at bus stops, floating in farm ditches on the Eastern Shore, even trashing the beaches and marshlands of the most remote islands in the Chesapeake Bay.

Why is Maryland so much trashier than Michigan?  The Great Lakes have much less garbage floating in them than the Chesapeake Bay we claim to love. The reason is simple: Michigan residents recycle 95 percent of the cans and bottles they use– almost four times the rate that we here in Maryland recycle.  We throw most of our beverage containers away -- into landfills or onto roadsides, where they end up in streams and the bay.

The difference between the states goes back to 1977, when Michigan passed a law that requires a 10 cent deposit for the purchase of each beverage container -- creating a financial incentive for average folks everywhere to pick up and recycle trash.  Nine other states have implemented five-cent refundable deposits, and they all recycle 60 percent or more of their cans and bottles – more than twice Maryland’s rate.

Year after year -- including in 2016 -- cleanup advocates in Maryland propose similar “bottle bills.” But they are inevitably killed in committee by state General Assembly.

The most recent legislation had a hearing on January 29.  Senator Bill Ferguson, a Democrat from Baltimore, was a sponsor of Senate Bill 367, which would have imposed a five-cent fee on cans and bottles that people could recover by returning their cans to reverse vending machines or recycling centers.

"We have a problem in the state of Maryland with recycling bottles and beverage containers," Ferguson told the Senate Finance Committee.  "Every year, at least 4.8 billion -- that’s with a 'b', billion -- beverage containers are sold into the state of Maryland.  What we know to be a fact is that only 25 percent of those beverage containers actually make their way back into being recycled or reused. That means we have about 3.6 billion beverage containers in the state every year that find themselves in landfills or in our incinerators or on our roadways or in our waterways."

Predictably, lobbyists for the soda and liquor industries and store owners testified against the fee arguing that it might hurt business.

"There is a huge cost to our sector in the form of labor, via security and sanitation,” said CaileyLocklairTolle, President of the Maryland Retailers Association.  “And (the bottle bill) poses safety issues both to our employees as well as our customers.  Because the bottles have value, we have to have increased security measures."

Okay, take those grim warnings of the need for armed guards to protect old Pepsi cans with a grain of salt. Stores in Michigan and the other nine states (CA, CT, MA, NY, VT, HI, IA, ME, and OR) with bottle deposits somehow have managed to remain in business for years while keeping bandits at bay, their stores clean enough, and their soda and beer sales healthy.

Far more damaging politically in Maryland is that county recycling programs -- every year -- testify against the bottle bill, because it would reduce their revenue streams by creating a form of competition.

Local governments don't want to lose even a small portion of the money they bring in by re-selling aluminum and glass collected through their curbside recycling programs.

Charles Reighart, Baltimore County’s recycling manager, joined the powerful Maryland Association of Counties in testifying against Senator Ferguson’s bottle bill in January.  "Enactment of this bill would undermine Baltimore County’s single stream program and facility from a fiscal perspective," Reighart said. "Approximately 33 percent of our total recycling revenue would be threatened by this bill."

This opposition came despite a University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center report and testimony that suggested that a five cent deposit would dramatically boost recycling rates in the state and reduce litter.  "Litter reduction is clearly the primary benefit of beverage container deposit programs....In fact, there is little evidence that any other program, in and of itself, is nearly as effective as deposit programs at reducing litter rates," Dan Nees, acting director of the university center and his fellow authors wrote in the report, which was funded by the Abell Foundation. (You can read the report here: http://efc.umd.edu/assets/2011impactanalybevcontmd.pdf)

In other words, a bottle fee (which would not replace curbside recycling programs, but enhance them), would likely clean up the streets of Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay.  And the program might even provide a little extra cash to average people desperate for money who want to spend their time picking up litter.  God bless anyone who wants to pick up trash.

But existing government recycling programs – which have a financial interest in the status quo -- are fighting bottle deposit fees because they are more concerned about their own income than the common good. That is an ugly and sticky problem that really needs to be cleaned up.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.