Or manipulated environmentalism at its worst …
When I was a child, in the 1950’s, Eugene Oregon, had a good system for handling beverage containers. Milk still came in reusable glass containers, packaged at local dairies. There were three local bottling plants for soda pop, which took the glass bottles we returned to the grocery store and refilled them using beverage syrup from the parent company and soda water they made themselves. Most of the beer came from Portland or Olympia, and the bottles went back to the manufacturer. Kids made pocket money picking up bottles left in parks or discarded in the trash.
Other types of recycling and refuse disposal also operated smoothly. There were convenient drop boxes for newspapers and old clothes. A small locally owned company took our one can of actual garbage, which my mother lined with newspaper, to the landfill on the outskirts of town.
By the time I returned to Oregon in 1980, things had changed considerably. Most soda pop came in single use plastic bottles, shipped from bottling plants in other states. In response to the intervening era of no-deposit, no-return, Oregon enacted a bottle bill mandating a deposit, though the bottles still ended up in the landfill. Children, and increasingly poor adults, scavenged bottles from parks and dumpsters and turned them in to grocery stores for the deposit. Larger supermarkets installed automated equipment for processing bottles and cans.
The numerous local trash haulers had been replaced by two out of state corporations, whose influence on local policy naturally is determined by their own bottom line. For several years a local nonprofit (Bring) handled the recycling, asking homeowners to sort paper, bottles etc. into separate bins. Things for which there was a local market actually got recycled. At some point the city was persuaded that commingled recycling was a good idea, and built an expensive facility at our local refuse transfer station to handle mixed loads. This equipment never worked, and soon the corporate trash haulers were taking the loads of recyclables to Portland, 100 miles distant, where the equipment reputedly worked better. Portland is also a port city, more convenient to shipping the sorted recyclables to factories in Asia. The local market for things like cardboard had disappeared in the interim.
It does not take a genius to figure out that the energy costs of trucking low value bulky items to Portland, sorting them in a highly mechanized facility, and shipping them to China where they may or may or may not be turned into consumer items to be sold back to us, perhaps proudly bearing a “green” label, greatly exceed those of the local reuse and recycling that was taking place sixty years ago. As the recycling effort is taxpayer subsidized, there is also a public subsidy built into the price foreign corporations are paying for their materials.
Developments in the last three years have taken things to a new level of a new level of corrupt absurdity. The state added bottled water to the list of things requiring a deposit, and increased the per-container deposit to ten cents, on the grounds that a low percentage of containers were being returned. Markets stopped accepting bottle returns; instead, bottles and cans in Eugene-Springfield must be returned to one of two large automated facilities, away from residential areas and not convenient to public transportation. For people who drink a lot of bottled water and inexpensive soda this can be a significant financial burden. As an example, a tenant I had moved out leaving $24 worth of cans and bottles, all representing food stamp expenditures, because he could no longer redeem cans at the neighborhood supermarket.
Then the corporate garbage haulers abruptly stopped accepting all plastics except deposit beverage containers as recycling, citing a weakening market for recycled plastic. That market has been weak for some time, if not from the inception of the recycling program. Now, what comes out of that sorting facility in Portland as plastic has a high monetary value, which goes, presumably, to the garbage hauler. The same is true of aluminum cans. I do not think it is an accident that the household recycling cans in our denser neighborhoods, which are supplied by the garbage company, now have locks on them, barring access to scavengers who might otherwise pick out the cans and take them by bus or bicycle to the sorting facility on the other side of town.
From time to time I see some article in the press boasting of how well the new improved bottle bill is working, because a higher percentage of containers are being returned than was the case five years ago. This can only be true because the process has been centralized in the hands of two large corporations, which are currently profiting from it.
Unredeemed bottle deposits, collected at point of sale, accrue to the State of Oregon, making the enhanced deposit law, especially on bottled water, a species of sales tax, and a singularly regressive one, since it is a per item tax, amounting to as much as 60% on the cheapest grades of soda and bottled water, and obtaining a refund is most difficult for lower income people.
Much of this boondoggle has been justified in the name of environmentalism, and the perpetrators feel entitled to adulation and reelection for their civic consciousness. For my own part, I have sworn off soda pop. Iced tea, made up in a pitcher, works just as well. In my experience, the best place to be environmental is at the point of consumption, not in what one does with the refuse.
Photo courtesy of Martha Sherwood
Featured image of Oregon Bottle Drop by David Kennedy