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Refund or recycle?

(article, Caroline Cummins)

We've written about the bottled-water blues before. But in the New York Times Magazine recently, Jon Mooallem gave an update on the latest in our disposable society: the various efforts to deal with the increasing numbers of discarded bottles.

See, here in Oregon we have the nation's first bottle bill. (Only 10 other states have one.) You buy a bottled beverage and pay a nickel for the privilege of doing so. When you've slurped, you can return the bottle (typically to a grocery store) and get your five cents back.

Back when the bill was passed, in 1971, the idea was to encourage consumers to be more responsible about their drinking habits (don't just toss those empties!) and to force manufacturers and grocery stores (the makers and dispensers of all those bottles, after all) to be more responsible about where their products ended up.

Nice idea, right? Except, as Mooallem wrote, the bottle bill only covered beer and soda, the two most common beverages then bottled. These days, bottled water and non-carbonated drinks are taking over in popularity. Hence the attempts, in several bottle-bill states, to expand bottle bills to cover plain old water. (And to increase the nickel rate to a dime.)

"It is because of the bottle bill that fleece jackets, mattresses and carpeting are now made from recycled plastic bottles," Mooallem pointed out. "Recycled bottles have become one of the most valuable scrap materials." But what about plain old recycling? As Mooallem reported — and all of us responsible recycling types here in Portland can attest — when we put out our empties on recycling day, most are gone by morning, picked over by the local homeless. So who's supporting whom?

If we recycle, the burden of responsibility falls on the shoulders of municipalities. If we return our bottles, the burden falls where it was intended to go by legislators: on the shoulders of manufacturers and vendors. But heck, all the bottles are made from petroleum anyway, so why are we buying them at all?

Because we like being able to toss. And, as the Seattle Times has reported, that tossing is global. Sometimes, as in the paper's article about the global garment-recycling industry, disposability just cycles around until it's used up. Other times, as in this story or this one about ocean pollution, the trash we toss never goes away.

So maybe that water bottle you chucked yesterday will become the fleece you buy next fall. Or maybe it'll end up in the stomach of a dead seabird. Either way, it's one more bottle you didn't have to buy.