If I read the newspaper’s recent editorial correctly, you don’t even want to have a discussion about how to improve recycling in Maine if it involves changes to the bottle bill.

That’s a pretty narrow perspective, and it flies in the face of discussions that are happening throughout the country.

In Delaware, Iowa and Vermont, legislation has been introduced to reassess the bottle deposit law with a goal of finding more-efficient ways to recycle all waste. Remember, those states have bottle bills, so it stands to reason that their environmental ethic is nearly as strong as ours.

The bottle bill, without question, was successful getting beverage containers off our roads. That was the original reason it was passed.

Over the years, it has turned into a recycling program. But as you acknowledged, it’s very limited in what it recycles. Beverage containers make up only 4 percent of the total waste stream. Unless the Legislature also wants to put a 5-cent deposit on newspapers, coffee cups and plastic bags, the bottle bill will never have broader impact on our overall recycling effort.

Why should a discussion about recycling include the role of the bottle bill? Because many of the assumptions we once made about its usefulness are no longer true.

In 1989, the bottle bill was expanded to include juice and water containers when many towns had barely begun recycling programs. Those containers were being landfilled, at significant cost to municipalities and the environment. Adding them to the bottle bill was the only available option at the time.

But today’s landscape is different. Everyone in Maine has access to recycling through programs that accept household products made of many different materials. Those materials are sorted, reprocessed and sold in the recyclable materials market. PET plastic and, in particular, aluminum hold some of the highest values for recycled material.

About 98 percent of beverage containers sold by members of our association are made from PET plastic or aluminum. Today, local distributors process and sell those recycled containers, when they could generate revenue for municipal recycling programs.

Additionally, more Maine communities are moving toward single-stream curbside recycling. It’s simple, convenient, and, with the right incentives, can revolutionize how people recycle.

I served on the Brunswick Town Council in 2006 when we converted to single-stream recycling and instituted $1 charge for every bag of trash thrown out. The result: We cut the amount of trash headed to our landfill by nearly 50 percent. Last year, Brewer implemented nearly identical measures — and increased its recycling rate 424 percent.

How does this affect the bottle bill?

Some recycling programs are so convenient that people who don’t like the hassle of taking beverage containers back to a redemption center increasingly put those containers into their recycling bin with all other recyclables.

Those folks, essentially, are charged a 5-cent tax per container for using their local recycling program. And, absurdly, other people pick through those recycling bins on trash day looking for beverage containers.

Something is wrong if the 5-cent incentive encourages people to take beverage containers out of a municipal recycling system to put them through a duplicative private system, something’s wrong.

After all, aluminum processed at regional waste facilities ends up in the same place as aluminum processed by beverage distributors. The only difference is how it gets there.

In the kinds of programs more towns are adopting, all recyclables go in one bin, get picked up curbside by one truck and taken to one facility for processing. By contrast, beverage containers are separated from other recyclables, taken separately by consumers to one of 815 redemption centers, separated again into hundreds of boxes, picked up by three different fleets of trucks and processed at multiple facilities.

Which system sounds more efficient and better for the environment?

The bottle bill survives because of the 4-cent state-mandated handling fee beverage distributors pay on top of the deposit for each container — fees ultimately passed onto Maine consumers.

Handling fees amount to $30 million annually, focused on just 4 percent of the waste stream. If we spent an equivalent amount on all solid waste, it would cost a billion dollars annually.

We can never afford that, which is why we need to start thinking about how to build more effective and efficient programs that use all the money currently spent on recycling.

Given the environmental challenge of global warming and our current economic situation, this is absolutely the right time to have that discussion.

Newell Augur is director of the Maine Beverage Association.

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