Op - Ed, Opinion

Bottle bills are not the answer for Vermont recycling

By John Casella

Editor’s note: John W. Casella is chairman and CEO of Rutland-based Casella Waste Systems.

Since 1977, when Casella built the first recycling facility in Vermont, I have worked alongside policymakers and community leaders to help make recycling economically and environmentally sustainable for Vermonters.

Although the company has grown, our roots remain in Vermont and we are deeply committed to our home state. Every so often, special interest groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation and Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) choose to ignore the day-to-day realities of recycling and seek to disrupt Vermont’s successful recycling programs with claims in support of problematic legislation like the latest iteration of the enhanced bottle bill.

The most dangerous part of the efforts by groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation and VPIRG is that, without proper knowledge, they seem logical. They are depending on the reader to not dig deeper into their claims. Below are some of the most problematic claims made by both groups of late.

Claim: About 25% of what we toss in single-stream recycling bins ends up in a landfill.

Fact: In Vermont, only 11% of the curbside recycling stream is landfilled as contamination as compared to the national statistic cited. And, through strong educational outreach and improved technology, Vermonters are working together to reduce that number.

Claim: The quality of the material produced is often poor because of contamination.

Fact: Recycled materials processed by material recovery facilities in Vermont are some of the highest quality, with the lowest contamination levels, in the country. These materials are sold into the exact same markets, with the same buyers, as the material that comes from the bottle redemption system. And, as single-stream recycling continues to evolve through education campaigns such as Recycle Better, and we continue to invest millions in technology and infrastructure improvements, we will continue to see higher quality material.

Claim: Updating Vermont’s bottle bill is easy and will create green jobs, reduce climate pollution, and keep more trash out of landfills.

Fact: Bottle bills are complicated and bureaucratic, and expanding the program in Vermont would reduce landfilled waste by at most 1%. An expanded bottle bill would not create jobs; it would simply move them from existing recycling systems into redemption systems. What’s more, creating a parallel recycling infrastructure could potentially increase harmful greenhouse gas emissions while negatively impacting the highly successful existing recycling programs in Vermont.

Claim: Vermont’s container deposit law produces recycling rates of 75% or greater, even when the national recycling rates have plummeted.

Fact: Vermont has the highest recycling rate in the country thanks largely to the effectiveness of curbside recycling. Vermonters recycle 72% of all the recyclables covered by the state’s universal recycling law, and that number has grown by 10% since 2014. Meanwhile, bottle bill recovery rates have stagnated at 75% and do nothing for the majority of the recyclables coming out of our homes and businesses. The credit for Vermont’s recycling success goes not to bottle bills but to Vermonters who use their local recycling programs.

Claim: Expanding the bill to include non-carbonated beverage containers is estimated to capture 20,000 tons of material and add an estimated 397 million additional containers recycled each year.

Fact: These numbers include containers that are already being recycled in curbside recycling programs. To know how many more beverage containers can really be captured, ask Vermont’s waste auditors. They’ll tell you that expanding the bottle bill will pull at most 4,000 tons from the waste stream, which is 80% less than what special interest groups suggest.

Claim: Single-stream recycling is costly to Vermonters.

Fact: The cost to operate an expanded bottle bill system is $4,600 per ton, which is more than 10 times the $445 per ton it costs to operate single-stream curbside recycling programs in Vermont. Not only would the new system cost more, but it would also drive up the cost of curbside recycling programs by removing valuable material from that stream.

Claim: Other states have already increased their deposits to a dime and, as a result, have some of the highest redemption rates in the country at over 85%.

Fact: Increasing the “redemption rate” would have no real impact on the recycling rate in Vermont. The material being targeted by this expanded bill is already being recycled at the highest rate in the country, with some of the lowest contamination rates nationwide. Our curbside programs are a much more comprehensive recycling system, capturing all of the essential traditional recyclables instead of just several.

Claim: These common-sense upgrades to the program will bolster the existing environmental benefits provided by the bottle bill and could generate an additional $2 million or more in annual revenue for the state.

Fact: Finally, the truth of what proponents of the bottle bill are really after. Another tax on Vermonters to fund programs like the Clean Water Fund that have no connection to recycling outcomes. The proposed “upgrades” to the bottle bill do not make any sense and do virtually nothing to improve recycling. The only benefit is additional funding for special interests straight out of the pockets of hard-working Vermonters through increased costs of recycling at the curb and beverages at the cash register.

Recycling facilities rely on the material that is targeted by the bottle bill to keep recycling economically sustainable for Vermonters. If this material is removed from single-stream recycling and placed into the bottle bill program, the cost of recycling will increase for all Vermonters, while simultaneously increasing the cost of the products and threatening the economic viability of Vermont businesses bordering states that do not have a bottle bill system.

The most successful, most environmentally and economically sustainable recycling program is single-stream. It is the most cost-effective way to meet Vermont’s recycling goals and it costs Vermonters substantially less than the bottle bill. We don’t need an expansion of the bottle bill, we need to continue to focus our efforts on education and understanding how we can all recycle better, together.

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