Keeping America Cluttered

The Big Fight Over Bottled Water Litter

The soda age is slowly subsiding as Americans stock their refrigerator shelves with water bottles instead of Coke cans. And that’s added impetus to campaigns around the U.S. to address the growing mountain of Poland Spring and Aquafina containers—currently exempt from state bottle bills—along every highway.

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Adding water bottles to deposit-based systems should be a no-brainer, but beverage distributors and retail industry leaders—including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Stop & Shop, Nestle Waters, Big Y and others—are not only resisting the change, but waving the green flag as they do so. "Consumers know the system works," says Betty McLaughlin, director of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI). "But the grocery industry across America is viscerally opposed to bottle bills. And they never, never back down."

In the decades following World War II, non-returnable plastic beverage containers began replacing the curvy glass refillable bottles that had been standard fare for the beer and soft drink industries. The popularity of these easily disposable containers grew and so did their contribution to litter. In response, 11 states implemented deposit laws, some as early as the 1970s, as an incentive to recycle these cans and bottles. The laws require retailers to host recycling machines that give consumers pocket change for their old bottles. Getting more states aboard has proven difficult. Industry lobbying through trade groups such as Keep American Beautiful (KAB) helped defeat bottle bills in many state legislatures.

When the existing laws were written, few predicted that health-conscious Americans would turn away from carbonated beverages and stock up on bottled waters and sports drinks.

And because there is no deposit on them, billions of Gatorade, Perrier and SoBe bottles litter the landscape. In 2000, California became the first state to include water bottles in its deposit system. Since then, only Oregon has joined in, but eight states are campaigning for new deposit systems and three are pushing for extension of existing laws. The legislation faces steadfast opposition from the beverage industries, which claim that requiring consumers to return bottles to stores for deposits is "dirty" and wastes resources.

Connecticut is one battleground state. Flyers posted in Connecticut Stop & Shop stores during the legislative session earlier this year not only severely downplayed the effectiveness of deposit systems in reducing litter but claimed that consumers could "save the environment" by opposing the revised bottle bill. The flyer stated that bringing additional containers back to the store would be a "major hassle."

"Retailers were out there with a terribly misleading propaganda campaign," says State Senator Bill Finch (D-Bridgeport). "They were irresponsible and irrational. And the problem with this disinformation campaign is that it’s totally false. They imply that once bottles are brought to the curb, they disappear and get recycled. But you have to run big trucks and pay employees to transport them to recycling centers, instead of filling up empty cars going to grocery stores."

A spokesperson for Stop & Shop, Rob Keane, says the company "believes that improved curbside recycling is the best sustainable method to improve recycling. An expanded bottle bill will increase the cost of beverages and will be an inconvenience to the consumer. We believe this tax is a costly proposal that will do nothing to reduce litter."

Of course, store collection to include water bottles is intended to complement, rather than replace, curbside recycling. Having both programs is proven to work: seven of the 11 state deposit systems for beer and carbonated drinks generated a 70 to 83 percent reduction in beverage container litter and a 30 to 47 percent reduction of total litter after implementation, ac-cording to CRI.

But the industry claims that curbside recycling is the only effective option. "Bottle laws served their purpose in 1979," says Carrie Rand-Anastasiades, lobbyist for the Connecticut Food Association. "It’s a 1970s solution, but now we need a 21st century solution and we feel that curbside recycling is the way to go. A deposit system could never touch curbside recycling if the process is taught properly in schools."

Recycling advocates strongly disagree. "The beauty of return-to-retail is that the consumer is going to return to the store anyway," McLaughlin says. "Is that how far we’ve come in this country, to throw these luxuries away after one use? I don’t think Americans are like that." But in Connecticut the industry got its way. The bottle bill was approved in the State Senate but stalled in the House.Prominent water bottlers, including Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola, have been among the most active opponents to legislation aimed at modernizing the nation’s litter responsibility. These companies are some of the biggest funders of KAB, which bills itself as the nation’s largest "community improvement" group.

"KAB is the granddaddy of green-washing," says John Stauber, executive director of the watchdog Center for Media and Democracy. "By funding Keep America Beautiful, these companies, which are responsible for so much waste and which are the worst players in defeating environmental bills, reframe the issue to be an individual problem."

KAB did not directly weigh in on what lobbyist Anastasiades recalls as the most contentious fight ever in the Connecticut Senate. "There’s no doubt deposit laws are effective in reducing litter," says Robert Wallace, spokesperson for KAB. "But a bottle bill is introduced at the state level and as a national organization we have trouble making a blanket statement. So, when dealing with local legislation we defer directly to our affiliates."

But the group’s affiliates are oriented toward making the individual feel guilty about "littering," rather than focusing on industry as an irresponsible player that wants its bottles to travel in only one direction. "It’s the great sin that the grocery industry commits to the planet," according to Finch. "In the grocery store, everything you see becomes waste in some form and is disposed of on the public nickel. The one thing we ask them to help out with, they tell lies about."