Litter is a pervasive, perpetual problem. And yet, decades
of changes in manufacturing practices, anti-littering laws, public education, household
recycling programs, plastic bag bans and single-use container refund programs (“bottle
bills”) have combined to reduce the visual clutter that used to plague roadsides
and parks in towns like Maynard and Stow.
|This BUD LIGHT can is beyond the redeemable stage, but it|
could be recycled with household recyclables.
Oregon was the first state to pass a bottle bill, in 1971,
with a surcharge of five cents per bottle or can at point of purchase, refundable
if brought back to a store or recycling facility. Between then and 2002, ten
states followed: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa,
Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York and Vermont. (Michigan and Oregon later
increased the deposit to ten cents. Delaware repealed its law in 2010.)
Studies show that beverage container
legislation initially reduced total roadside litter by 30 to 60 percent in
those states. However, there have been increases of late, due to the shift away
from carbonated soft drinks – in deposit containers – and to bottled non-carbonated
beverages and water, as those may be exempt from the mandatory surcharge.
For the remainder of the country, lobbying by the container
industry has been successful in blocking passage of similar laws. Early on, companies
such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi supported the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, in
effect putting the onus on the consumer rather than the industry. Companies
also supported the addition of household recycling bin programs as an alternative.
This last can be very effective, especially when (as in Maynard), what goes
into the big blue recycling bin is collected free whereas regular trash requires
the purchase of stickers.
|Hard spirits bottles of any size are not|
returnable. Mini-bottles like there are
common parking lot and roadside litter.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a bottle bill in
January 1983. It applied to beer, carbonated soft drinks and carbonated (sparkling)
water in glass, metal or plastic containers. The law did not apply to containers
of non-carbonated water, flavored water, coffee, tea, caffeinated beverages or
sports (electrolyte-containing) beverages. Or wine. Or spirits. The refund
amount was set at five cents, and has remained the same even though that should
be more than a dime if there was compensation for inflation. Subsequent
proposals to expand the bottle refund law to bottled water, non-carbonated
flavored beverages and sports drinks have failed to gain legislative approval
even though some of our neighboring states have succeeded in just such an expansion
of the law. What happens to the unrefunded nickel if a container is trashed or
ends up in a household recycling bin rather than being taken to a refund
center? Massachusetts is one of the states that declare unclaimed refunds as
being abandoned by the public, and therefore property of the state. The money
is used to support recycling programs.
|OARS Assabet River cleanup, 2013. Click to enlarge photos. |
What other changes have taken place through the years? On
the plus side, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and its subsequent amendments made
clear the idea that rivers and lakes are not dumping places for trash or
polluting chemicals. Locally, since the Organization for the Assabet River
(OAR) was created in 1986 (expanded to Sudbury and Concord Rivers in 2010),
tons upon tons of trash have been removed from the rivers and their shores. New
dumping has dwindled.
Cigarette butt littering has declined for several reasons,
the largest being that the percentage of American adults who smoke has declined
from 43 percent in the 1960s to 14 percent now. Massachusetts has the
third-highest state tax on cigarettes in the nation, so that even people who
smoke on a daily basis smoke less.
The use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) as fast-food packaging
and as disposable cups has diminished. Maine and Maryland have enacted bans on
polystyrene food containers, including restaurant take-out containers. On the
downside, food stores switched from paper to plastic bags for being less
expensive; in response, public awareness campaigns have led to people bringing
their own reusable bags. Worldwide, more than 30 countries have banned the use
of single-use plastic bags. California was the first state to do the same;
seven states have since followed suit. Massachusetts is considering a ban, and
some towns – including Concord – have already initiated their own ban. On a weird
note, lobbying by the American Progressive Bag Alliance has led to a dozen states
blocking any towns, cities or counties from passing a local law, in effect
banning the banning of plastic bags.
The Maynard Litter League (on Facebook) was started in 2004
with the goal of combatting Maynard’s littering problem. The call to action is
simple: don’t litter, keep your immediate neighborhood litter free, and participate
in the annual town wide cleanup, held in late April.
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