The new year will bring yet another expansion of Oregon’s bottle bill, a largely redundant state program that should have expired years ago.
It’s a testament to lawmakers’ indifference to the interests of the typical consumer that this Nixon-era relic continues to chug along, a policy Pinto in the Tesla age.
In 1971, Oregon became the first state to require a redeemable deposit on beverage containers.
Over the next decade and a half, about a dozen states followed suit. But since 1986, only one state has enacted a bottle bill: Hawaii in 2002.
More recently, in 2010, Delaware did what Oregon should. It eliminated its bottle bill in favor of a more efficient mechanism for collecting empty cans and bottles. It’s called curbside recycling.
Oregon, by contrast, has expanded its bottle bill even as access to curbside recycling has exploded.
In April, the 5-cent deposit on bottles and cans doubled.
And as of Jan. 1, consumers will cough up their dimes when buying juice, hard cider, sports drinks, tea, coffee and various other drinks that had been deposit-free.
Some beverages will remain deposit-free, including distilled liquor and wine (except nonalcoholic wine, which will require a deposit), but the list isn’t long.
While it’s difficult to know how widespread the use of curbside recycling is in Oregon, the Department of Environmental Quality estimates that 80 percent of Oregonians live in areas where curbside collection is provided.
In Bend, the cost of curbside recycling is built into the price of trash pickup. For much of the state, then, curbside recycling and the bottle bill are working at cross-purposes, and consumers are stuck in the middle.
The most efficient way for most people to recycle their cans and bottles is to stick them in the curbside bin. After all, they’re already paying for the service.
By doing this, however, they sacrifice the dime deposit they must pay for a growing array of products. To recover their dimes, they must drive their cans and bottles to a redemption center, an extra trip that is both an inconvenience and a waste of fuel.
No wonder more than 70 percent of Massachusetts voters opposed a 2014 initiative that would have expanded the state’s bottle bill in much the same way Oregon’s legislators have expanded ours in recent years.
If lawmakers repealed the bottle bill, originally an anti-littering tool, the number of cans and bottles alongside roads might increase. Consumers would lose their incentive to trade them in for their dimes, and roadside scavengers would lose an incentive to pick them up.
Before predicting a littering tsunami, however, consider the fact that fewer than a dozen states have deposit laws on the books, only one enacted since 1986.
Could it be that tossing your cans and bottles out the car window has become less socially acceptable even as a growing recycling ethic, served by curbside pickup, has identified a higher purpose for them?
Unless you suffer from a case-a-day Diet Coke habit, the bottle bill isn’t likely to be a significant drain on your wallet or your time.
But the fact that it continues to exist should serve as a drain on government credibility. It is the embodiment of government waste: an entire assessment and collection infrastructure that continues to exist alongside a more efficient and convenient infrastructure tied to garbage collection.
The bottle bill’s most rabid and myopic supporters might not care much about the credibility problem its continued existence exacerbates. But everyone else should. Demonstrations of government rigidity and inefficiency aren’t particularly useful when that very same government asks taxpayers to open their wallets even further.
Inconveniently, the bottle bill’s latest expansion will hit grocery store shelves only days before ballots for Oregon’s enormous health-care tax hit their mailboxes.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.