Alert 682: A decision time for recycling in Delaware

Latest Delaware “recycling” bill, SB 234, still not good enough, but can be fixed
Please ask Governor Markell and Representatives not to pass SB 234 until it is fixed
Delaware’s container deposit program (“bottle bill”) should be fixed not killed

Action:  Please contact Governor Markell and–if you live in Delaware–your state Representative


Few issues have been harder to make progress on in Delaware than managing discards.  The most fundamental reason is that a long series of Delaware governors have deferred to special interests, especially the self-serving Delaware Solid Waste Authority.

Delaware lags in recycling; residents health and pocketbooks are impacted by unhealthy practices, and garbage dumps make a harmful contribution to emissions of greenhouse gases.  Both money and materials are wasted.

Many will recall that last year a bill slipped through shutting down Delaware’s container deposit law (“bottle bill).”  Green Delaware members joined many others in asking Governor Jack Markell to veto this bill, which he did.

Now, repeal of the bottle bill is back in the form of Senate Bill 234.  (387 lines, 14 pages, already amended twice in the Senate)  SB 234 also does other things, some desirable and some not.

SB 234 has passed the Senate and is expected to be taken up by the House of Representatives on May 11, 2010.  It shuts down the deposit program, replaces it with a temporary sales tax on some beverage containers, and, after a fashion, says that every household in Delaware is to have a “single stream” recycling container, or ready access to one.  This is being called “universal recycling.”  The sales tax is to be used to subsidize the startup of these expanded curbside programs.  It also endorses “zero waste principles” and seeks to lay the groundwork for further progress

This all may sound reasonable on it’s face.  Some “enviro” groups in Delaware are supporting it because they see it as trading an ineffectual bottle bill for increased recycling.  But the reality is different.

The beverage industry has a nationwide campaign to roll back bottle bills.  This amounts to shifting the real costs of disposable containers from the industry selling them to the public.  SB 234 apparently originated in Gov. Markell’s office and was imposed on the DNREC to support.  “Universal Recycling” is a phrase coming from the beverage industry campaign.  While it has been repeatedly claimed,per usual, that “all the stakeholders” were consulted this is not the case.  The bill reflects politics perhaps more than sound policy

We’ve heard from organizations around the country about it, including the Product Policy Institute, the Container Recycling Institute., and the Campaign for Recycling.  They are concerned because Delaware would be the first state to repeal it’s container deposit laws.

People are wondering why Governor Markell, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association and may have larger political ambitions, would support bad policy.  (Ask him!)

Other interests have weighed in.  David Swayze (Parkowski…) represents the Glass Packaging Institute and reportedly has complained that his clients didn’t have input.  W. Laird Stabler, III represents TOMRA North America, one of the biggest operators of container recycling systems (“reverse vending.”)  TOMRA, a Norwegian company, probably doesn’t want to see container recycling cut back.  Lobbyist and PR man Sam Waltz put up a website: claiming to be “a citizens advocacy coalition in Delaware devoted to moving Delaware to the most efficient method of recycling possible.” But Watlz’ clients include the Delaware Solid Waste Authority and many other bad actors.   We aren’t sure what’s really behind the recyclefirststate site but it clearly isn’t what it claims to be.

The real issue is this:  “extended producer responsibility” vs bigger government.

Extended producer responsibility means that those producing and selling the packaging–or whatever else–are responsible for the full life cycle of it.  If they are not, who is?  The public, of course.  Deposit programs put the onus back where it belongs–on the producer.  Bottle bills–Delaware’s was passed in 1982–are an early example of the growing movement towards producer responsibility.

So the question really is:  Should the beverage industry be allowed to unload its responsibilities onto the public?

The Product Policy Institute says :  “When EPR legislation is implemented, governments realize a big monetary savings, and recycling becomes more convenient for residents.”

Consider:  a big proportion of what recycling programs collect is containers.  Much of the rest is paper, food waste and yard waste.  With a deposit program, the containers get recycled because there is money in it.  If not, they will either be wasted into dumps, or go through a curbside program somebody has to pay for.  Guess who??

No doubt, Delaware’s bottle bill program is broken. It’s the least successful one of the thirty or so in the world.  Eleven US states have bottle bills:

Success rates in recovering containers:

CA: 85%
CT: not avl
DE: estimated 12%
HI: 79%
IA: 86% (93% in 2000)
ME: not avl
MA: 70%
MI: 97% (10 cent deposit)
NY: 70%
OR: 84%
VT: 85%
Curbside only states: 28%

Success rates worldwide are reported to range from 70 to 97 percent.  Why is Delaware an outlier at around 12 percent?  Mainly because retailers seem to hate handling the containers and frequently refuse to accept them, or accept them and then throw them out.  Enforcement by the DNREC has been near-zero.  Promotion and public education has been nil.

Also, only a few types of containers are covered.  Aluminum cans aren’t.  Water bottles and non-carbonated beverages aren’t.  In 2006 about 620 million beverage containers of all sorts were sold in Delaware. About 135 million (22%) were covered by the present bottle bill (numbers are approximate, different sources vary).  Most of these aren’t returned for the deposits.  (Some, of course, are collected in curbside programs or at the DSWA drop-off centers.)

What to do?

Delaware needs both curbside pickup for everybody, and container deposits.  The two can be complimentary and with “pay as you throw” and other measures, can move Delaware towards exemplary, rather than below-par, recycling rates.  The question is:  how to get there?

Plainly the Delaware bottle bill needs a major rework.  Of the examples Delaware could follow, the Hawaii program has been suggested, partly because it does not rely on retailers to take back the containers.

A solid program could actually yield more revenue than the present broken one.  Here’s how:

The present program is a gift of several million dollars per year to those pocketing the deposits for the mostly un-redeemed containers.  We estimate this to be around $5 million per year.  (Estimates vary as solid data aren’t available.)

The proposed Markell sales tax (“Temporary Recycling Fee”) is estimated by the Controller General to yield about $4.5 million per year but sunsets December 1, 2014 or when it reaches $22 million.

On the other hand, a program applying to all beverage containers (approximately 620 million per year), with an 85 percent recovery rate, and a five cent deposit, would leave $4.65 million per year in unclaimed deposits.  If the program was as effective in its early years as the Hawaii program (started up only in 2005) 2009 (79%) the unclaimed deposits would be about $6.5 million.

Links to details about the Hawaii program are here.

(A five cent deposit seems low to us.  Prices and costs have risen since 1982 when the Delaware bottle bill was passed. but this seems to be the most common amount.  Note that Michigan, with a ten cent deposit, has the highest recovery rate.

For more information on the economics of container deposit in Delaware, see this March 2, 2010 letter from the Container Recycling Institute.

Role of the DSWA

The Delaware Solid Waste Authority (The “Garbage Empire”) is getting ready to raise its dumping fees on July 1, 2010 by about 30%  (Minimum charges for people who take their own trash to the DSWA go up by 72%.)  This is spite of the fact that the amount of wastes generated in Delaware have dropped substantially due to the depression and the (limited) growth of recycling programs in Delaware.  At the same time, the DSWA is spending tens of millions of dollars to expand it’s garbage dumps in order to make room for materials that should not be dumped at all.

The DSWA likes SB 234 because the bill releases it from many recycling responsibilities.  The drop-off centers would gradually close and the agency would no longer run curbside programs.  If we believe the DSWA’s numbers, it is spending the equivalent of about $8-10 per ton of the dumping fee to subsidize recycling programs.


Delaware can get it’s act together.  But this is only likely to happen with informed public participation.  Otherwise, special interests will continue to bollix progress as they have for so many years.

SB 234 has some good provisions but major changes are needed, including:

  • Fix not kill the “bottle bill;”
  • strengthen recycling goals and make them enforceable;
  • state directly that “zero waste” is state policy and that this does NOT include incineration of Delaware discards either within Delaware or elsewhere;
  • add independent voices to the “Recycling Public Advisory Council” and the Board of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority;
  • immediately ban landfilling of yard waste statewide;
  • set further, higher goals for beyond 2020 (Table 1)
  • ensure that adequate recycling facilities are available for those who “self-haul” their trash.

Thanks to Steve Weisser, Susan Collins, and others for their contributions.

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