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The point of no returns
Jerry Uhrhammer
August 02, 1976
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August 02, 1976

The Point Of No Returns


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A summer-long experiment in California's Yosemite National Park is proving that no one should underestimate the power of a nickel in cleaning up America. Last May, without fanfare, the park concessionaire began charging a 5� deposit on every beverage container sold. The purpose was to encourage consumers to collect cans and bottles rather than toss them away as litter. Early returns have been remarkable.

"Every week we're recycling more aluminum cans than we did all last year," reports John Crofut, public-relations director for the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, which will sell about one million cans of beer and soft drinks during the 10-week test. "The return rate is up to 76% and it may go to 80%. The amount of litter in the park has been greatly reduced. We find people from five to 95 out picking up the cans."

The Yosemite experience could be a preview of what lies ahead in other national parks if U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans aren't sidetracked. The EPA is formulating regulations that would make mandatory a deposit on all pop and beer sold in federal parks, buildings and military bases.

But Yosemite soon may find itself smack in the middle of The Great Bottle Bill War. The battle began 300-odd miles to the north, in the state of Oregon, in 1971 when the legislature passed a law requiring deposits on all beer and pop containers and banning the ubiquitous pull-tabs. By placing an economic value on every container, proponents reasoned, there would be fewer throwaways, and ugly litter along roadsides and beaches would be drastically reduced. And that's exactly how it worked.

Not surprisingly, the bottle bill encountered opposition. The deposit-and-return concept is anathema to a container industry, which profits from the manufacture of 60 billion throwaway cans and bottles annually. National brewers also have a sizable stake in the continued use of the one-way containers, which allows them to expand their markets and compete against regional beers without having to worry about shipping empties back for refilling. The container industry complains that Oregon's bottle bill and others since passed in Vermont and South Dakota are discriminatory, focusing on only a fraction of "total" litter. As an alternative, the industry argues for tougher litter laws and better education programs to change the behavior patterns of the people responsible for litter.

The industry has argued that Oregon is a unique place, suggesting it is full of woodsy weirdos, and while the bottle bill might be effective there, it probably wouldn't work elsewhere. Other representatives of industry use another approach, asserting that Oregon's bottle bill has actually been a failure. Tom McCall, the former governor of the state who signed the bottle bill into law, calls it "the most lied-about piece of legislation in history." His successor, Bob Straub, also has uttered some strong words. In a letter to William B. Renner, president of the Aluminum Company of America, Straub charged ALCOA with "incredible lies, innuendos and gross inaccuracies." Straub was concerned about an ALCOA advertising campaign that warned of "Trouble on the Oregon Trail." Among ALCOA's claims: Oregon's beverage-container litter problem had actually gotten worse, prices were up, sales were down and the aluminum can had been "lost," depriving the consumer of his freedom of choice. "Mr. Renner, this is simply not responsible advertising," Straub wrote. But Renner, in his reply, defended the advertising and spoke of ALCOA's commitment to solving the total litter problem.

ALCOA's assessment is sharply at odds with the way most Oregonians perceive the bottle bill. After the law took effect in October 1972, the impact on the outdoors became obvious, and Oregonians became believers. A 1973 public-opinion survey found 91% of the citizens favoring the law.

A fishermen's organization conducted annual litter pickups along the Siuslaw River and Lake Creek, two popular steelhead streams, and after the bottle bill went into effect, the chairman of the clean-up group wrote, "Two years ago we picked up an estimated 3,000 beer cans and bottles, all nonreturnable, amounting to about 80% of our catch on that trip. Last Sunday, less than 1% of the litter we picked up was beer cans and bottles."

"You can walk on the beaches now and hardly ever see a bottle or can," says Don Waggoner, a 41-year-old industrial executive and past president of the Oregon Environmental Council, the coalition of citizens' groups that lobbied for the bill. Waggoner says state highway litter surveys show that beverage-related litter declined 83% during the first two years of the deposit system.

Ski-area operators report drastic reductions in the debris picked up after the snow melts. At Crater Lake National Park rangers are stopping less frequently to pick up discarded containers along the roads. Backpackers are finding less litter on trails and in campsites. "We once considered banning the taking of cans and bottles into our wildernesses because we have no disposal systems there," says Al Sorseth, recreation officer for the Willamette National Forest on the western slope of the Cascades. "But in the last few years we would not have been able to justify such a regulation—what's taken in seems to be coming out. One reason is that the bottle bill has created an awareness."

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