Wednesday, May 7, 2008

deposit systems

Austin is likely to ban plastic bags sometime in the not-too-distant future. That's a dumb idea. Plastic bags aren't good, but sometimes they're the best thing. They're great for trash cans. Nor are the alternatives cost-free, either in terms of energy, environmental impact, or convenience.

I do recognize that they've got some real negatives, though I have no idea how bad those negatives are. 1 billion bags per year in the US? Sounds like a lot, but they're pretty flimsy. 4.3 million gallons of crude oil sounds like a lot, but this is a country of 300 million. Everything is going to sound like a lot. 1400 tons in Austin landfills? Is that a lot? Maybe it's just a drop in the bucket. How big are the landfills? Does it really matter to me whether it takes 1000 years for them to break down? I figure once it's more than 100 years, it's basically all the same to me. 100,000 marine mammals sounds like a lot, but maybe the Port of Houston kills that many every day. I have no context for any of these numbers. Nor should I be expected to. But one thing I can definitely be counted on the pay attention to is money.

This is a classic case of misunderstanding the problem. The problem isn't that plastic bags exist. It isn't even that producing them uses energy and oil. The problem is that we throw too many of them away. That means more space in landfills and needing to use more energy and oil to make more.

That's where recycling comes in. My completely uninformed guess is that in the history of the world, we've produced enough plastic bags to go for another century if we just keep reusing and recycling what we already have, instead of producing new ones. Of course, we can recycle them now, but people don't. Then there's the litter problem; there are ugly plastic bags stuck in trees all around my neighborhood.

Up in Vermont, we had a deposit system for beverage bottles and cans. You paid 5¢ extra, and then got that back when you brought the bottles and cans in. Anyone who sold them had to take them back. When other houses in our neighborhood were being built around us, I'd go around to the construction sites and pick up all the bottles and cans that the workers just threw on the ground. It was a little dirty, but no big deal. I'd collect a few dollars worth in a half hour of walking around. Hey, free money. It worked so well to inoculate me against throwing out recyclable products that even now I cringe when I see someone throw a crushed aluminum can in the trash.

Deposit systems work a lot better than outright bans. People who need plastic bags could still get them. I could still use them as trash bags, though having a price on them would make me consider whether there was a superior alternative. We as a society would recycle a lot more. People like recycling, as long as they don't have to expend much effort. On the other hand, if they effectively got paid to recycle, they'd be a lot more motivated. Right now you have to expend extra time and effort to do the right thing. A deposit system means that people pay themselves to do the right thing. There would be a financial incentive to avoid litter, and for poor people to pick up litter. I'm startled that there aren't more deposit systems in operation. They seem as close to a perfect solution as you can get.

We could use a lot more deposit systems. At minimum, I'd like to see:

  • Plastic bags - 5¢ each.

  • Glass bottles - 10¢ each.

  • Plastic bottles - 10¢ each.

  • Beverage cans - 5¢ each.

  • Cigarette butts - 3¢ each. This is the big one for me; they're not recyclable, but they're littered all over the place. Saying "Don't Mess With Texas" isn't enough.

  • Batteries - $5 for car batteries, $2 for power tool batteries, 25¢ for D, C, B, A, AA, and AAA ones, 15¢ for watch batteries and the like. Even ones that aren't recyclable need to be disposed of properly.

  • Fluorescent lights - $2 for big tubes, $1 for small tubes, and 50¢ for CFLs.

  • Fast food containers - 50¢?



Those amounts are just suggestions. It would make sense to let the operator of the collection facility get some of the money to pay for the overhead of collection. Maybe you'd pay 7¢ per paper bag, and collect 5¢ when you recycle it.

I don't think we need deposit systems for food cans, as people generally use them only at home, making curbside recycling sufficient. Ditto for shampoo bottles, yogurt tubs, etc. Computers could use it, but there are too many different kinds of parts for a standardized system.

I expect the more suitable items are those that are often consumed outside the home (and thus frequently littered, like cigarette butts), ones that are especially hazardous (batteries), or are impractical for curbside recycling (plastic bags blow away). They'd also have to be items that have a sufficient impact to justify a widespread retail collection campaign; obscure niche items need some other system. Perhaps I am being too limited in my thinking.

What other common items that could use a deposit system? Used motor oil? Leftover paint? Bullet and shell casings (this IS Texas)? Leftover cooking oil?

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4 Comments:

Blogger Rich said...

I have to disagree. By forcing a deposit system, you're increasing the amount of time and gas every single person has to expend running around the city find a place to bring all this stuff back. I'm not going to spend 30 minutes and a gallon of gas to get $.60 back for a pack of used cigarette butts.

You're also increasing all of our taxes via the overhead to run such programs.

And finally, you're increasing the passed on final cost of goods caused by the costs the acceptors of returned deposits must bear.

Study after study has shown people are more than willing to recycle if you make it *very* easy for them. Put a *single* recycle bin at each house than accepts all this stuff. Sort at the processing facility via automation, manual labor, and maybe even criminal labor. Subsidize the sorting costs via the payment for the recycled goods. It easy, it works, and it makes sense.

May 8, 2008 at 1:50 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

Nobody has to bring this stuff back. You're perfectly free to relinquish the deposit. That gives someone the opportunity to earn money by collecting the deposit on your behalf.

If it takes you 30 minutes and a gallon of gas to buy cigarettes, I have no problem with you having to do the same thing to return the butts. But of course it won't work that way because you'll be going there to buy new cigarettes anyway. Or you'll save up until you have a dozen cartons worth of butts. Your example is unrealistic, to put it gently. Just out of curiosity, have you ever used a deposit system?

The programs would be funded by the deposits, not by taxes. Some part of the deposit would be kept back for the collection overhead. There would inevitably be some fraction of the products in question that don't get returned, so those deposit fees would be kept by the merchant in their entirety.

There's no general tax, just a slightly increased charge, and only for people who buy those products. Right now, those people (as a group) are shifting the costs of proper disposal onto the rest of us, either by the rest of us directly paying for litter pickup, or the indirect costs of environmental damage. We are incurring those costs right now. The idea is for those costs to be paid by the parties responsible for them, and to create a financial incentive for doing the right thing.

Maybe it doesn't make sense for everyone who sells those things to have to collect them; perhaps the requirement can be shifted into a financial incentive that retailers can take or ignore. That's certainly worth considering.

I question the value of these studies because I see too many people failing to do the right thing. People will throw cans into the trash when there is a recycle bin right next to the trash can. Also, nobody does curb-side pickup for fluorescent lights, batteries, or cigarette butts, nor does it make sense for them to.

Does it not cost money to collect recycling bins and to sort the contents? How do you propose paying for that if not a tax? Charge people disposal fees? That will further discourage doing the right thing.

May 8, 2008 at 4:25 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

My example was deliberately a joke. Still, I'm not going to store up a bunch of nasty smelling butts and fast food containers. And if they don't mean $.03 to me, I'm just going to throw them out. I'm not going to just give them to someone else to recycle. You're adding more confusion and process to a public that can't or won't deal with it.

How to pay for it? Please read my last paragraph again. The rest of the money would be charged as it is now: as an involuntary trash service.

The recycle bin sorting would by a lot less time, gas, money, and regulation for everyone.

May 13, 2008 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Ketan said...

This isn't just about recycling; it's about litter, too.

I'd be ok with you throwing your cigarette butts in the trash. That means you're not throwing them on the street. And even if you do throw them on the street, someone will pick them up for you because there's a financial incentive to do so.

For fast food containers, we're probably better off encouraging the use of materials that can be recycled on the curb. Those might not be practical.

I don't see how it's free to do more curb-side recycling, especially with the need for sorting.

Nor do I see why you insist that people need to make separate trips to return these items; these are all things that people buy regularly, so they can bring them back when they get more.

Finally, it's not just about cigarette butts; what about fluorescent lights, batteries, and plastic bags?

May 13, 2008 at 11:08 AM  

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