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Investigation Digs Up Eco-Corruption In Local Recycling Programs

Since 1971, 10 states – led by Oregon and Vermont – have passed bottle deposit laws. These so-called “bottle bills” have proven to increase recycling rates and reduce litter on roadsides and in waterways. The laws give people a financial incentive, often five or ten cents per bottle or can, to pick up the litter and return the containers for a cash reward.

For example, Michigan passed a 10 cent bottle deposit law in 1976 and today enjoys a 95 percent recycling rate for bottles and cans. That’s almost four times the 25 percent rate in Maryland, which does not have a deposit law.

Six times in Maryland over the last decade, legislators have proposed bottle bills. Predictably, soda and beer manufacturers and store chains have fought the laws, because they don’t want to lose any income or take responsibility for handling dirty containers.

But that’s not why the bottle bills keep dying in Maryland and other states. The really effective lobbying against them in recent years has come from county and city recycling programs. These local government programs do not want to lose any of their own income, either from re-selling glass and aluminum or through grants from phony environmental groups such as Keep America Beautiful that are quietly bankrolled by the soda companies.

Investigative reporter Sharon Lerner popped the top off of this recycling corruption scandal in a recent article published on the news website The Intercept.  


“There are 707 local affiliates of Keep America Beautiful,” Lerner said. “And that organization was founded by beverage and container companies and Philip Morris to deflect responsibilities from those companies. Their mission has been to emphasize the responsibility of individuals in the litter crisis.”

That is, point the finger of blame at individual people – not the big companies like Coke and Pepsi that make billions of dollars by selling the cans and bottles, but do not want to take responsibility for those containers.

Ironically enough, Lerner discovered, Coke back in the 1940’s used bottle deposits worth nearly 50 percent of the value of the drinks to successfully recycle 96 percent of its bottles. But then Coke turned away from that bottle deposit model in the 1950s, when the company figured out that churning out single-use plastic bottles was cheaper.

As part of her reporting, Lerner got her hands on a secretly recorded tape.

(Sound of chatter in a meeting. Voice: “we going to be talking about a really exciting collaboration with a company I think we are all familiar with….” )

This is a meeting in January between the city of Atlanta’s recycling program officials and two recycling nonprofits: Keep America Beautiful and the Georgia Recycling Coalition, which both receive funding from the Coca-Cola Foundation.

The audio is fuzzy, but they are talking about receiving another grant from Coke. John Seydel, Director of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, suggests they use some of that money to lobby for a bottle deposit bill to increase recycling rates.

“I think it’s been a long time since the state of Georgia has even considered something like a bottle bill,” Seydel said. “I do think that’s something worth looking at.”

That suggestion was immediately shot down by Gloria Hardegree, Executive Director of the Georgia Recycling Coalition.

“I can tell you that the answer to that is a big no,” Hardegree said.  “With the investment that Coke is getting ready to make in Atlanta and in other major cities across the U.S. with this World Without Waste (campaign), it is not going to be a part of that conversation.”

World Without Waste is a Coke public relations campaign that puts the onus for recycling on consumers, but avoids any bottle deposit fees that could reduce the company’s profits.  (For the record, Coke claims that it is working seriously on the litter issue, saying in a written statement: “Any time our packaging ends up in our oceans — or anywhere that it doesn’t belong — is unacceptable to us.”)

The Director of Environmental Programs for the city of Atlanta, Kanika Greenlee, participated in that January meeting. She wears several hats, also working in a second job as vice chair of Keep America Beautiful, which receives Coke funding, according to reporting by Sharon Lerner in the Intercept.

“Not that the bottle bill is not like a worthy conversation, but I feel like it may jeopardize the funding that we have in place,” Greenlee says on the tape.

At the end of the meeting, after an argument, Atlanta’s recycling officials back off and drop the idea of a bottle bill.

The problem with arrangements like the one in Atlanta is that voters think that their public officials are serving the public good: getting litter off the street. In fact, too often recycling program managers are thinking first about the revenue streams for their own programs, and not about the natural streams that will remain polluted with bottles and cans because of tainted government.

(Photo of Sharon Lerner from The Intercept)

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.