The beverage container deposit: an idea worth recycling

By Wayne Savage


You might call it the great recycling paradox: As curbside recycling programs proliferated across the United States in the late 1990s, overall recycling rates for beverage containers actually dropped.

The high-water mark for beverage container recycling, it turns out, was 20 years ago, in 1992, when 54 percent of cans and bottles were recycled, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for comprehensive recycling of packaging materials. Since 1992, according to CRI, the overall recycling rate for beverage containers has plummeted and now only a third of beverage cans and bottles are recycled.

Recycling rates crashed even as the number of curbside recycling programs in the United States swelled from about 2,700 in 1990 to more than 9,700 ten years later, according to BioCycle magazine.

Blame the paradox on increased consumption of canned and bottled beverages, often in public spaces where recycling programs don’t reach. The upsurge in consumption is partly the result of population growth. More surprising, perhaps, is a jump in annual per-capita consumption of canned and bottled beverages in recent decades – from 319 in 1980 to 721 in 2006, according to CRI.


Then and now: Returnable-style glass soft-drink bottle (1988), left, and plastic water bottle (2012)

Almost all of the per-capita increase can be traced to the bottled-water mania of recent years, led by such brands as Coca-Cola’s Dasani and Nestlé Waters’ Poland Spring. Consumption of bottled water leaped from about 3.2 billion gallons in 1995 to 8.75 billion gallons in 2010, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a consulting and financial-services firm. That translates into a lot of bottles; annual sales of plastic water bottles rose from fewer than 3 billion in 1996 to nearly 36 billion in 2006.

As more Americans chug more canned and bottled drinks, overall recycling rates haven’t kept pace. Industry figures show that only 29 percent of plastic bottles are recycled. Glass beer bottles and glass soft-drink bottles collected by municipalities are recycled at the rate of 41.4 percent, while the rate for wine and liquor bottles is even lower, at 24.7 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The one relative bright spot is the recycling rate for aluminum cans, which pushed past 58 percent in 2010, according to industry figures. CRI reports that aluminum cans account for about half of all beverage containers sold.

As low as reported recycling rates are, CRI argues that most are inflated because they don’t take into account important factors such as contamination of recycled containers.


Everyday impact


Lackluster recycling rates aren’t just a theoretical issue for eco-nerds to debate. Their impact is seen every day in the litter soiling our communities and washing into streams and rivers.

During last April’s annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, volunteers collected 519 bags of recyclable cans and bottles from 36 sites along Rock Creek and its tributaries in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County, according to Beth Mullin, executive director of the Rock Creek Conservancy.  The deluge of beverage containers into the creek has continued despite curbside recycling programs adopted by Montgomery County in 1991, followed by D.C. in 1998.

Virginia state law required all counties, cities, and towns to establish recycling programs more than 20 years ago. But detailed reports from the Izaak Walton League show the meager impact of those programs on litter. In September 2010, for example, volunteers from the league’s Arlington-Fairfax chapter collected 223 plastic bottles, 48 aluminum cans, and 37 glass bottles from Bull Run. Those containers comprised nearly 22 percent of the litter recovered from the stream, apart from tires. (Styrofoam fragments were by far the largest component at 61.2 percent.)

The number of beverage containers washing into streams can surge following heavy rainfall, as occurred in early September 2008 when the remnants of a tropical storm swept through the Washington area. A week later, volunteers from the Izaak Walton League reported that bottles and cans comprised three-quarters of the debris they collected from Bull Run.

After the April 2011 cleanup, the Alice Ferguson Foundation announced that volunteers had removed a total of 48.4 tons of recyclable glass, aluminum and plastic bottles from the Potomac River watershed, which covers D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and two other states. Keep in mind, it’s an annual watershed cleanup, so expect a similar figure in April, after another year of litter washing into the Potomac and its tributaries.

“A lot of beverage containers are consumed away from home . . . so curbside recycling is only a partial solution,” said CRI’s executive director, Susan Collins, at last October’s annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit in Arlington. The summit, which brings together public officials and environmentalists, is organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation to further its goal of a “trash-free Potomac” by 2013.


Back to the future


Collins’ group is promoting an idea that was trendy back in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since been eclipsed, in the public mind, by curbside recycling programs: beverage container deposit laws, commonly known as “bottle bills.” Eleven states have enacted bottle bills, led by Oregon in 1971. Delaware repealed its law in 2010 in favor of statewide curbside recycling, leaving 10 states with bottle bills in effect.

States with beverage container deposit laws show much higher recycling rates, according to CRI. In a study based on 2006 data, CRI found that the overall recycling rate of beverage containers was 61.4 percent in states with deposit laws, compared to 24.2 percent elsewhere.

When it comes to recycling, money speaks louder than eco-ethics: Michigan’s 10-cent deposit is the highest in the nation, and nearly 97 percent of deposits are redeemed, suggesting that Michigan has the nation’s best recycling rate, even assuming that some cans and bottles come from outside the state for illegal redemption.

States with beverage container deposits also report substantial reductions in litter. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, for example, describes that state’s 30-year-old bottle bill as “a tremendous success” that has reduced roadside container litter by 70 percent.


D.C.’s bottle-bill battle


Longtime residents of the District of Columbia will recall a hotly contested, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt in 1986-87 to enact a D.C. beverage container deposit law. Appearing on the ballot in November 1987 following a petition drive, the measure was defeated by a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent.

Proponents of the D.C. bottle bill were blindsided by ferocious pushback from a coalition of beverage producers and distributors, container manufacturers, and retailers both large and small. The industry coalition spent nearly $2.3 million to defeat the proposed bottle bill, an unheard of amount at the time. The money bought not only television and radio ads, direct mail, and telephone calls, but also an army of paid ward and precinct workers.

Deliberately or not, the industry campaign drew strength from longstanding racial and economic fault lines within D.C., faint echoes of which were heard in 2009 during the successful effort to enact a 5-cent fee on disposable bags.  The industry’s core argument was that beverage container deposits would burden consumers  ̶  especially the low-income and elderly  ̶  with higher costs and inconvenience.  Retailers also worried about the burden of storing dirty used containers and losing business to nearby jurisdictions that had no deposit laws.

Industry arguments against the bottle bill eventually were echoed by key players in D.C.’s political establishment, including city council members, the local chapter of the NAACP, and a group of 130 ministers. Proponents of the bill countered that a deposit law would not only reduce litter in the city but also create hundreds of jobs in the recycling industry.

On election day, the Washington Post reported, the bottle bill received overwhelming support in the city’s majority-white voting precincts but fell to defeat as black precincts “just as resoundingly rejected the deposit measure.”


Trash under the bridge


Given that history, a renewed effort to enact beverage container laws in the Washington area might seem ill-advised. But D.C.’s bottle-bill campaign of 1987 was a generation ago, and a lot of trash has passed under the bridge since then. Three factors converge to make this the right time to revisit the issue:

● After 14 years or more of curbside recycling in the Washington area, it is clear that such an approach does not address the problem of beverage container litter in public space away from people’s homes and businesses. Deposit laws are an essential part of a comprehensive solution to litter.

● The beverage container deposit laws in 10 states have matured, been tweaked by legislatures, and proven both their worth and practicality.  For example, to mitigate retailers’ concerns, most states with deposit laws now use a system of special recycling centers, either alone or in combination with retailers, to accept used beverage containers. There are even “reverse vending machines” in some locales that accept and crush empty cans and plastic bottles for pickup from retail stores.

● Public perception of the litter problem has evolved, as shown by the D.C. City Council’s unanimous adoption of the 5-cent bag fee to help clean up the Anacostia River.  A survey funded by the D.C. Department of the Environment in 2010 revealed that 70 percent of city residents are bothered “a lot” when they see litter on the ground or in the water – though 40 percent admit to littering themselves. (Montgomery County has enacted its own bag fee, which took effect January 1, and the Prince George’s County Council voted 8-0 last week to impose a 5-cent bag tax, although that measure failed to gain necessary approval in the Maryland General Assembly.)


Redeeming the pledge


Nearly 200 elected officials in the Washington area have signed the Alice Ferguson Foundation’s “Potomac River Watershed Trash Treaty” in the past seven years, thereby pledging to implement trash-reduction strategies. Enacting beverage container deposit laws would be one way to show they mean it.

To be sure, the defeat of D.C.’s bottle bill 25 years ago offers some sobering lessons, chief among them that grassroots organizing at the neighborhood level is essential to building support for a deposit law. Retailer concerns must be addressed, and region-wide beverage container deposit laws are preferable to piecemeal adoption by individual jurisdictions.

Bottle bills understandably are anathema to the beverage industry. A mandatory deposit on cans and bottles upends its business model, which imposes on society at large – in other words, taxpayers – the cost of container disposal. As Collins told the trash summit, adopting deposit laws embeds the cost of waste disposal in the purchase price of beverages and “makes producers and consumers responsible for their waste, not taxpayers.”

More than two decades after D.C. voters rejected a bottle bill, its appeal to fundamental fairness in public policy is an idea worth recycling.


Update (June 25, 2013): D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s Sustainable DC Plan includes, as one of its ambitious goals, introduction of a container-deposit law for all glass and plastic bottles. (See Action 1.4 in the plan, which is available at


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington-based public space litter-removal company. He participated as a volunteer in the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup in 2012 and 2013.






















Potomac sewage spill warning failed to reach D.C., Northern Virginia

By Wayne Savage


Utilities that draw drinking water from the Potomac River for Washington, D.C., and much of Northern Virginia received no official warning in mid-December as 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Monocacy River, a major Potomac tributary.

As public-works employees in Frederick, Md., scrambled to repair an electrical malfunction that crippled the city’s sewage-treatment plant on the evening of December 11, officials of the Maryland Department of the Environment placed urgent calls to the Rockville water-treatment plant and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the primary water utility for Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

MDE’s calls warned Rockville and WSSC of the spill, which started at 7 p.m. and continued until 3 a.m. the following day. Frederick’s sewage-treatment plant discharges wastewater into Carroll Creek, some 500 feet above its confluence with the Monocacy River.

But official notification of the December 11 spill never crossed state lines to reach water utilities downstream in Virginia and the District of Columbia, as called for by a longstanding early-warning plan devised by jurisdictions in the Potomac River basin.

Under the early-warning plan ─ which is voluntary and not mandated by federal law ─ MDE should have notified the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. The ICPRB, in turn, is tasked with spreading the alarm to downstream water utilities so they can take mitigating action, if necessary, in response to contamination events. ICPRB’s role includes running a computer model to determine the times that contamination is likely to reach downstream water-intake pipes.

Potomac River watershed map

The Potomac River watershed covers four states and the District of Columbia.

Among the communities left in the dark on December 11 was Leesburg, Va., some 30 miles downstream from Frederick and the closest to the spill.

“I don’t have any documentation in my file that we got notified,” said Larry Taylor, manager of Leesburg’s water-treatment plant. He said, however, his file contains a printout of a story from the Frederick News-Post website.

Tom Jacobus, general manager of the Washington Aqueduct, said he and his staff were unaware of the Frederick sewage spill until contacted for this report.  The Washington Aqueduct, a division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supplies water for Washington, D.C., and Arlington County, Va.

Fairfax Water, which supplies water to a large swath of Northern Virginia, including Fairfax and Loudoun counties, also missed the warning.

“We do not have a record of being notified of that spill,” said Fairfax Water spokeswoman Jeanne Bailey. “I don’t believe we were aware of it.”


Multiple sewage pathogens

Raw sewage can contaminate water with bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms that cause human disease, including “serious illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis, and gastroenteritis,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Sensitive populations ─ children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems ─ are at a higher risk of illness.”

“In a serious spill, sometimes the [water] utility will need to take measures to avoid contaminating their intakes or change their treatment process,” said Cherie Schultz, director for CO-OP operations at the Interstate  Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

The ICPRB has developed models that estimate the time of travel and concentration of contaminants that enter the Potomac River, Jacobus said by email.

“This provides utilities with needed information about a wastewater treatment plant overflow and gives warning so that water treatment plant managers can assess the potential effect of that overflow on the treatment system,” Jacobus said. “These managers may decide that it is prudent to add more chlorine to neutralize the bacteria that are over and above the normal river conditions.”

Jacobus and officials of other downstream water utilities, including Leesburg and Fairfax, said the December spill posed no danger to public health. According to these officials, the sewage was so diluted by the time it reached their intake pipes that it required no change in the routine treatment of raw water taken from the Potomac.


State agency alerted

Frederick officials alerted the Maryland Department of the Environment within an hour after the spill started. But according to multiple sources, the state agency did not pass the word to the ICPRB, as called for by the region’s early-warning plan.

A statement released by MDE confirmed the agency notified WSSC and Rockville ─ the two nearest downstream water utilities in Maryland ─ but not the ICPRB. The MDE said it is “taking steps to address the communications issue” and has strengthened its emergency response procedures by improving its internal communications and by “reminding our staff that under our response plan they should directly contact ICPRB as soon as possible after any spill in the Potomac area.”

Carlton Haywood, director for program operations at the ICPRB, said employees of his agency didn’t learn of the spill until they read a newspaper report on the morning of December 13. That was some 36 hours after the spill started ─ too late for the downstream water utilities serving Virginia and the District of Columbia to take remedial action, had it been necessary.

ICPRB’s computer model showed that the leading edge of the sewage spill would have taken 17 hours to reach Leesburg, about 10 miles downstream from the Monocacy’s confluence with the Potomac, arriving at noon on December 12, with the peak concentration coming at 4 p.m..

After passing water intakes that supply Fairfax Water, the WSSC, and Rockville, the leading edge of the spill would have reached the Washington Aqueduct’s intake at Great Falls at 7 p.m., with the peak coming at midnight, according to the computer model.

Dilution of the sewage spill was aided by a relatively high level of water in the Potomac. At noon on December 12, the river was flowing at 31,300 cubic feet per second, or about 234,000 gallons per second, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey at Little Falls, 10 miles below Great Falls. That flow rate was more than twice the historic average recorded for December 12 by the USGS.

Noting the Potomac’s high flow, Haywood said that by the time bacteria from the Frederick spill “got down to the Washington-area utilities, the concentrations were likely down to roughly the same as background levels, more or less.”

Similar assurances came from the downstream water utilities.

“In the Potomac River with a dilution factor there shouldn’t have been any problem,” said Taylor, manager of the Leesburg water-treatment plant.

Bailey, the Fairfax Water spokeswoman, said that given the distance the sewage spill traveled, it would not have impacted her utility. Fairfax Water’s two intakes are near the border of Loudoun and Fairfax counties, some 40 miles downstream from Frederick.

“We don’t feel that spill would have had any impact on our water supply or any treatment changes would be necessary,” Bailey said.


Maryland utilities notified

Officials at both Rockville and WSSC said the Maryland Department of the Environment notified those two water utilities of the sewage spill at 9 p.m. on December 11. MDE’s warning calls, however, did not include the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

The WSSC found no need to raise chlorine levels in response to the spill, according to spokeswoman Lyn Riggins, who said the raw sewage “was diluted by billions of gallons of river water by the time it got to us.”

“We kept an extra eye out,” Riggins said, “but there was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Marylou Berg, communications manager for the Rockville city manager’s office, said that routine, around-the-clock testing showed no difference after the spill.

“We continually monitor the chlorine level leaving the plant … to get the water quality to the appropriate level,” Berg said. “The amount we needed to maintain the water quality didn’t have to go up.”

Berg described the sewage spill as “really not much of an event for us.”

“Certainly the river was contaminated by this extra sewage,” Jacobus said in an interview, “but the river is always contaminated.”  He said raw river water is assumed to be non-potable, and water-treatment plants are designed to make it potable according to EPA standards.

Based on the ICPRB’s computer model of the Frederick spill, Jacobus said there was no need to change the Washington Aqueduct’s treatment process because “the effect of the bacteria would have been incrementally negligible at the intake.” (The aqueduct’s Great Falls intake is some 50 miles south of Frederick.)

“We have a very sound bacterial-disinfection process that can handle what comes to us from the river,” Jacobus said.

Jacobus suggested that a chemical spill, especially petroleum, would be more problematic because water-treatment plants “were not fundamentally designed to handle” such contamination. In 1993, a ruptured pipeline sent 407,000 gallons of diesel fuel into Sugarland Run, a Potomac River tributary near Reston, Va., forcing Fairfax County to shut down its Potomac water-treatment plant for more than a week.


Federal law silent

on interstate warning

Frederick officials were required, as a condition of their sewage-treatment plant operating permit, to notify the Maryland Department of the Environment of the sewage spill. But federal law does not mandate that notification include the ICPRB, which would have warned downstream water utilities of the incident.

“What [utilities] are not obligated to do is report to other agencies in other states, so that is the gap that ICPRB is trying to fill,” said Haywood, echoing a slogan that appears prominently on the ICPRB website: “Watersheds Cross Political Boundaries. That’s Why We’re Here.”

The ICPRB, however, is a non-regulatory body, and participation in its early-warning system by the Maryland Department of the Environment is voluntary.

Jacobus said the breakdown in the chain of notification was the first he knew of in his 16 years with the Washington Aqueduct. He called it “a uniquely rare event in my experience.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service. He drinks water every day that’s drawn from the Potomac River.


 For further reading:

City of Frederick timeline of sewage spill

Statement released by Maryland Department of the Environment

Statement released by Tom Jacobus, general manager of Washington Aqueduct