Week of 7/16/2006

Dear EarthTalk: The soda bottle I’m holding only lists a few U.S. states and deposit amounts on it. Aren’t more than just a few states requiring that bottles be returned for recycling?

—Calvin Terry, Castine, ME

Currently 11 American states have "bottle bill" laws on the books that require a deposit of usually five or 10 cents on beer and soda cans and bottles that can be redeemed when empties are returned to the store. The state of Oregon pioneered such legislation, passing the first U.S. bottle bill back in 1971. Hawaii has the newest one, enacted in 2002. Meanwhile, all but two of Canada’s 13 provinces (the remote Northwest Territories and Nunavut) have bottle bills.

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI), an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, works for the passage of new bottle bills and the strengthening of existing ones. According to CRI, bottle bills make sense because they encourage recycling and, in conjunction with curbside recycling programs, extend the life of landfills by keeping cans and bottles out. Indeed, recycling rates in states with bottle bills can be as much as three times higher than in states without them.

Such programs also help reduce litter. Studies have shown that beverage container legislation has reduced total roadside litter by as much as 64 percent in regions with bottle bills. Another documented benefit has been a reduction in incidences of glass laceration, simply because fewer glass bottles end up broken on sidewalks, streets and in kids" play areas. One Massachusetts study attributed a 60 percent decline in reported childhood glass lacerations once the state’s bottle bill went into effect.

Despite these benefits, however, many beverage manufacturers oppose bottle bills, arguing that the five to 10 cents added to the price of their products deters customers even though the deposits are redeemable. These companies have effectively squelched bottle bills in many U.S. states through the sheer power of their lobbying efforts. Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Pepsi and others have spent millions fighting bottle bills, complaining that such legislation duplicates community recycling programs already in place.

But CRI says the argument has been "wrongly cast in either/or terms," that refundable deposits and curbside recycling programs are not mutually exclusive and should be part of a comprehensive approach to recycling: "If the goal is to maximize recovery of recyclables [and] reduce reliance on raw materials for manufacturing new containers
then a combination of recovery options should be employed to ensure the highest
recovery rates possible."

Beverage sales are growing, especially bottled water and other non-carbonated drinks (which are currently exempt from many state bottle bills). And the waste has been growing as well. According to CRI, some 118 billion aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers were discarded and not recycled in 2002 alone, more than double the number 20 years earlier. The main issue is really who should pay the costs of recycling. Refundable deposits are fair, says CRI, because they put the costs on the producers and consumers of the beverages instead of on the local communities and taxpayers.

CONTACT: Container Recycling Institute, www.container-recycling.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the implications of the massive thaw that is taking place right now in Western Siberia?

—Brad Arnold, St. Louis Park, MN

Russian researchers returned from an exploratory mission in Western Siberia last year to report that the world’s largest frozen peat bog there, land as large as France and Germany combined, was quickly melting away "into shallow lakes." Sergei Kirpotin, a botanist at Russia’s Tomsk State University and the leader of the research effort, told the journal New Scientist that the situation was an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming."

The main worry is that as much as a billion tons of methane—a "greenhouse gas" 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide—could be rapidly released from the bog, where it has been sitting harmlessly for thousands of years. This flush of methane into the atmosphere could, in turn, further warm the atmosphere.

Western Siberia has warmed faster than almost any other area of the planet, with an average temperature increase of about three degrees Celsius over the last four decades alone. Kirpotin believes that man-made climate change, combined with cyclical changes in atmospheric circulation caused by melting ice, is to blame. Similar patterns are developing in Eastern Siberia and across the Arctic stretches of Alaska.

Siberia’s peat bogs formed about 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The huge bog in question is thought to contain 70 billion tons of methane, or about a quarter of all the methane stored on the Earth’s surface worldwide. If it continues to thaw, as it seems likely to do, researchers fear that the methane could force a "tipping point" (point of no return) in the ability of the Earth’s climate to regulate itself.

"When you start messing around with these natural systems, you can end up in situations where it’s unstoppable," says climate researcher David Viner of England’s University of East Anglia. "This is a big deal because you can’t put the permafrost back once it is gone."

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international group of climate researchers, estimated that global temperatures could rise as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, thanks to known sources of greenhouse gas emissions. According to Viner, scientists did not even anticipate the possibility of events like this when making their predictions, and how much they could add to the warming.

Environmentalists are using the Western Siberia findings to step up pressure on world leaders to take concerted action on climate change. Says Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom: "If we don’t take action very soon, we could unleash runaway global warming that will be beyond our control and it will lead to social, economic and environmental devastation worldwide. There’s still time to take action, but not much."

CONTACT: New Scientist, www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg18725124.500.