The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 13, 2007

Consultant: Bottle bill is impractical

By Mannix Porterfield

CHARLESTON, WV — Slapping a 10-cent deposit on beverage containers as a means of discouraging litterbugs in West Virginia is nothing more than a tax and won’t achieve its purpose, a Maine consultant says.

What’s more, argues Kevin Dietly of Northbridge, an environmental consulting firm in Westford, Maine, the program is likely to go belly up if too many folks turn in cans and bottles for a return on their deposit.

Dietly has no qualms with the desire to control litter, but says a proposal likely to be crafted next week for the 78th Legislature is simply impractical.

In fact, even before it is in printed form, Dietly labels the measure “dismal.”

“It’s not workable from a financial perspective,” he said minutes after an interims committee ended its meeting, running out of time before he could address lawmakers.

Dietly says simple math proves why.

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that trying to collect dimes on virtually every beverage container you sell in the state from about 5,000 different retail locations, putting that back in a box somewhere at the Capitol and then paying out 13 cents on every one of those that comes back when somebody wants a refund won’t work,” he said.

Ten cents goes back to the consumer, and another three pennies is dedicated to the recycling centers.

“If you get more than 77 percent of those containers back, you’re going to find the Capitol is out of money,” Dietly said.

“All of a sudden, the pot’s out of money. The program is still running and it needs money.”

But Linda Frame, program manager for West Virginia Citizen Action Group, the lead group behind the so-called bottle bill, says language will be inserted in it to monitor the redemption rate.

“If it appears the fund is going to be running low, then we’re going to need to adjust the handling fee,” she said.

If the built-in 3-cent fee is too high, Frame said, West Virginia can take corrective action as other bottle states have done in their programs.

West Virginia stands as an island among five border states without a container bill, and that, in itself, lends such a program to wanton abuses with consumers able to turn in cans and bottles at 10 cents apiece, even though they weren’t purchased here, Dietly said.

“So it’s just an open-ended tax,” he argues.

In rebuttal, Frame acknowledged some fraud is possible, but bottle states have run such programs successfully for three decades, such as Michigan and Iowa, while surrounded by states that don’t require a deposit.

“Michigan reports a fraud rate of just 2.5 percent,” she said.

“The other thing is, there are all kinds of really great technology now to address the fraud issue.”

One method is to alter the bar code on products so they clearly are identified as being sold in bottle states, she said. Another means of discouraging cheats is to label the container with a state abbreviation.

“The tax word is used all the time by business interests who are opposing the bottle bill,” she said

“I wish all of my taxes were 100 percent refundable. Let it be called a tax on litterbugs that throw their cans out the windows. I don’t think the Adopt-A-Highway folks would mind having that tax, either.”

Dietly disagrees, saying, “We know that fraud exists and it’s a big problem in deposit states. Where you have an island state like West Virginia, you’re going to have all kinds of containers coming in.”

The environmental consultant says West Virginia would be focusing on a very narrow problem, saying a mere 8 percent of all litter along highways involves beverage containers.

“It’s more important to focus on a comprehensive solution to problems, improving and building up the recycling infrastructure we have in this state,” he said.

“There are a lot of good programs in this state. There could be more scrap dealers in the state who process the materials. You put a deposit on, you put that full recycling infrastructure out of business because you’ve got to create a whole new infrastructure to handle the containers.”

Frame takes exception to the 8 percent figure cited by Dietly, asking where he found that figure, when bottle states report an overall reduction in litter between 40 and 60 percent after enacting such a law.

“Just ask the Adopt-A-Highway volunteers what percentage of trash they pick up is beverage containers,” the WVCAG official said.

While the interims panel failed to produce a suggested bottle bill, one is expected to materialize this week, with Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, as its chief sponsor.

Frame also disputed Dietly’s claim that existing recycling firms would suffer under the legislation.

“We’ve carefully written our bill to promote the idea of recycling center infrastructure,” she said.

“We hope that businesses already taking containers would grow. They’ll be getting the handling fee and keeping all that scrap and selling it. We don’t have a great recycling rate right now. People are going to dramatically recycle.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com