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Op-ed thoughts on the Bottle Bill from Brooks

As promised, here’s Brooks’s perspective on bottles, deposits, and meth heads.


So, thank you to Ms. Christine for letting me post on her blog. I don’t often have blogworthy thoughts, but here’s one.

[Editorial comment: this is not factual. On any day of his choosing, Brooks could quit being a lawyer and become a world-class blogger.]

The Oregon Bottle Bill. Oregon was at the vanguard of recycling when it devised a system to create an economic incentive to recycle glass beverage bottles. Buy the beverage, return the bottle to the merchant, get a nickel.  At the time curbside recycling was nearly non-existent and the system worked.

You’d bring your bottles (and later cans) to the store and the attendant would count them, give you a slip and you’d shop, turning the slip in as part of your payment for your groceries.  Lovely.

In its implementation in the urban areas of Oregon (which contain the significant majority of Oregon’s population) it is broken and should be abolished.

The problem:

As the number of bottles and cans labeled for deposit grew stores began switch to automated machines in which you’d stick the container, it would read the barcode to confirm that the container qualified and add to a total in the machine, printing the total on a chit slip when you pressed a button to indicate you are done.

The stores make little to no profit on the bottles returned (the unclaimed deposits end up in the hands of distributors). Thus the stores have no economic incentive to make bottle return easy or efficient.  Instead the machines are invariably placed in a ghetto adjacent to a corner of the store.

Most of the bottles returned once contained beer, sweet, lovely beer. Mmmmm. As Homer said, “I would kill anyone in here for one drop of sweet beer.”

But I digress.  What happens to beer left open to the atmosphere (like the remnants in the bottles?) It gets colonized by a variety of bacteria which digest it and produce acetic acid.  Which, while quite fun to play with in its glacial form, in dilute quantities found in bottle return ghettos stinks mightily.

Next, the machines operate poorly. It often takes multiple tries to get the machines to accept a pristine bottle or can which bears a clear barcode and is part of the program.  Much frustration.

An anecdote–we’ve been hoarding our redeemables so as to avoid supporting the population of local can wraiths.  (See two paragraphs below for a definition).  We went today to the local Safeway to redeem them. The can return ghetto stank and the floor was sticky.  The machine refused at least half of the bottles once and many multiple times. In the process I ended up with some stale beer on my hands. Basically a frustrating, disgusting experience. Christine went in to the store about half way through the ordeal to ask for a hand count because the machine was so balky. The answer was a crisp “No, we don’t do that anymore.”

Also, the majority of urban Oregon now has curbside recycling of all manner of things including glass and aluminum. Thus, homeowners can leave their otherwise redeemable bottles at the curb, forfeit the deposit but be assured the glass is still be recycled instead of dumped in a land fill.

This leads to the next problem–can wraiths prowling the streets with stolen shopping carts, stolen bicycles and trailers and other accessories. Many of these folks are drug addicts trying to feed a habit or others prone to petty crime.  Basically your garden variety Lowlifus Americanus These are not people for whom I wish to provide an income. Nor do I want them to have a reason to regularly surveil my home and vehicle.

So, in summary, we have a system in Oregon whereby grocery purchasers pay in money to a system which is most often redeemed by addicts or criminals, or left in the hands of distributors. The stores in turn have every incentive to not repair or maintain the machines or keep them clean and in working order. This further discourages the average person from availing themselves of the system.

The practical solution:

For now, we will simply rub the barcodes off of bottles and crush cans before putting them out to recycle. That way we avoid the hassle of redeeming them, deny the can wraiths any profit and still see that our aluminum and glass waste doesn’t end up in a landfill.

The consequence of this is that the distributors of the various beverages those containers once contained get to keep our deposits.  While not fair, that is tolerable.

The better solution:

Eliminate the bottle bill wherever curbside recycling is operational.

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