IF YOU were shopping for beer in, say, the 1940's, you had a pretty simple job. All you did was pick a brand and you were on your way. You paid for the beer and made the deposit on the bottles, and, when you'd emptied the bottles, you'd bring them back and collect the deposit. The good old days.
What a difference now. First you have to decide between the light and the regular, even if you know the brand you want. But even that is nothing considering the range of other choices you have to make: cans or bottles? 8-ounce, 12-ounce, quart or liter sizes? 6-packs or 8-packs? returnables or throwaways?
Given the technology and consciousness of the 1970's, even a quick trip to the corner liquor store is fraught with moral and economic dilemmas. Do you go for convenience with the throwaways, at a little more expense? Or do you pay a little less (plus deposit) and do a small bit for the environment, with a little bit of effort? Every day in every way things get more and more complicated.
In the container industry, the complications really started about 25 years ago when throwaway bottles and cans first appeared on the market and began their steady rise toward almost universal acceptance by the public. In 1966, for example, the National Soft Drink Association reported that returnables comprised 87 percent of all sales, but, by 1973, the returnables share of the market had declined to 54 percent and has continued to shrink to a current 27 percent. In Illinois, fifth in the sale of beer and soft drinks nationwide, about 60 percent of all soft drinks are sold in bottles, the remainder in cans. Beer drinkers, however, prefer their brew in cans. Between 65 and 70 percent of total beer sales in Illinois are in cans, according to Al Fritsch of the National Can Co.
The price of convenienceBut the convenience afforded by throwaway containers has its price like everything else. The Illinois Department of Transportation spent $2.5 million in 1978 to clear roadside litter from state highways. Almost half of that litter was nonreturnable bottles and cans. Added to the state's cleanup costs are the funds spent by local and county governments, all paid for by taxpayers.
The switch to throwaway bottles and cans has resulted in increased use of natural resources -- steel, aluminum and glass -- and increased energy consumption in the manufacture of the packaging. In 1975, the beverage container industry used 7 million tons of glass, 2 million tons of steel and 500,000 tons of aluminum to make bottles and cans, according to industry reports. Because the returnable bottle can be reused, it is made with only one-third of the fuel needed to produce a throwaway can, according to a study done by the University of Illinois.
Confronted by environmental concerns, many states have either enacted bottle bills or have imposed state litter taxes on containers. The Oregon legislature passed the first bottle bill in the country in 1971, after soft drink and beer distributors and container manufacturers failed to develop an effective anti-litter program in that state. Several studies of the effects of the Oregon law indicate that is has led to the near extinction of the nonreturnable containers. Returnable bottles now comprise about 90 percent of all packagedSeptember 1979 / Illinois Issues / 11
beverage sales, while cans account for the other 10 percent. About 90 percent of all bottles sold are being returned for refunds, according to the findings, while 70 percent of the cans sold are being brought back to the stores.
Spurred by the apparent success of the Oregon bill, Vermont, Iowa, Maine, Connecticut, Delaware and Michigan have adopted similar measures in recent years. The California legislature is also considering a bottle bill proposal. Michigan voters approved that state's bottle bill in a binding referendum on November 2, 1976. The law took effect last December.
Rod Brown, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said that while litter has decreased, consumers are paying more money for cans of beer. "We in the beverage industry feel it is a very costly answer to the litter problem, and takes care of only about 20 percent of the litter problem," Brown commented.
Beer prices have increased since the law took effect because bottlers have had to purchase additional storage space for the empties and also hire additional workers to clean the bottles, Brown said. Under the Michigan law, beverage companies have also been required to buy new containers that indicate the bottles and cans are returnable (cans are recycled).
Newspaper reports in Michigan indicate that a case of beer sells for $11.80, including deposit. However, across the state line in Indiana, beer can be purchased for about $6 a case. As a result, some beer drinkers are buying beer in other states and bringing it back home, Brown said. Although the Michigan law has some apparent drawbacks, Brown stressed that it is too early to make any final judgments about the measure.
Unlike most of the states that have enacted container reforms, Illinois has a strong industrial base, including manufacturing of containers. Fritsch said there are an estimated 8,000 persons involved in can manufacturing and an additional 12,000 employees in the bottle industry here. Officials in Illinois companies that produce the cans and bottles say it is difficult to judge the economic impact of an Illinois bottle bill. Fritsch did note that just before Michigan's bottle bill became effective last December, Owens-Illinois, a major glass-producer, laid off 160 people who were making nonreturnable bottles in that state.
"I've talked with glass production people," Fritsch said, "If a company has been making nonreturnable bottles, it is just not that easy to make the switch to new dies [for refillables]." He added that the changeover also involves a sizable capital expenditure by the container firms.
The fear of business lossBill Clow, a spokesman for Owens-Illinois, said that part of the uncertainty about the effects of an Illinois bottle bill depends on whether consumers would continue to purchase canned beverages despite a mandatory deposit law or would buy more beverages in returnable bottles.
The attempt at compromiseWhat is more important: the environment or the economy? Members of the Illinois House have been debating that question in relation to the bottle bill for the last five years. Since 1974 Rep. Dan Pierce (D., Highland Park) has sponsored legislation imposing a minimum 5-cent deposit on beverage cans and nonreturnable bottles. Pierce's bill would also prohibit "pop-top" cans. To give manufacturers time to modify their operations for the returnable cans and to minimize the number of displaced workers, Pierce has agreed to defer the bill's effective date for five years after enactment. Fritsch calls the five-year provision "a textbook solution" to the September 1979 / Illinois Issues / 12
employment issue since it only delays the inevitable. "I don't think you can use that kind of a projection on people's lives," he remarked.
While the measure is supported by environmental groups, including the Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) and several farmers' organizations, a coalition of business and labor has repeatedly combined to topple it. Only once, in 1977, has Pierce manuevered the proposal out of the House Environment Committee (which he chairs) onto the House floor. When the House considered the bottle bill in 1977, the bill was supported by only 42 representatives, while 124 others opposed it. This year, after almost two hours of testimony on March 29, the committee again rejected the bottle bill(H.B. 5) by a9-to-4 vote.
Unlike Michigan, Illinois does not have the binding referendum, which would enable voters to initiate and approve legislation. Therefore, members of the General Assembly will continue to determine the fate of bottle bill proposals. Both supporters and opponents of the bottle bill agree that business and labor have been more successful in getting their views across to legislators than environmentalists and other backers.
Sen. Sam Vadalabene (D., Edwards-ville), who opposes the Pierce bill, remarked this session: "There's no question that this time the lobbying by the opponents before the House Environment Committee was more uniform and more cohesive. They made their point loud and clear."
"We did not manage to captivate the public's imagination on this issue," admitted Dannel McCollum, secretary-treasurer of the IEC. "We need to develop a statewide, grassroots desire for this legislation." He said the IEC hopes to solicit support for the bottle bill from various community and civic groups, such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H associations throughout the state.
The taxing of all litter"H.B. 5 was killed by the unions," declared Rep. Dan O'Brien (D., Chicago). "It was an unholy alliance of manufacturers, labor and the chamber of commerce all being against the bill." For an anti-litter bill to be approved by the General Assembly it will need the support of the glass producers and the soft drink distributors, O'Brien added.
Rather than simply continuing to thwart passage of the bottle bill, the beverage industry last spring introduced its answer to Pierce's bill -- H.B. 2703. Instead of just zeroing in on bottles and cans, as H.B. 5 does, this alternative measure proposes that litter tax assessments be paid by manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of 15 litter-producing items including newspapers, paper products and fast food packaging. Companies would be assessed a small percentage of their total gross sales each year in order to fund the litter control program. The total litter assessment, estimated at about $3 million annually, would be used to subsidize the cost of litter removal and for education programs promoting a cleaner environment.
Supporters of the litter assessment proposal contend that it is a more comprehensive solution to the litter problem than the bottle bill. States where such an assessment is in effect include California, Washington, Vermont and Kentucky. Indications from the states of Washington and Vermont are that the assessment method has reduced litter, but like the bottle bill, prices have also increased. In effect, the consumer is asked to pay a higher price for a product to help offset the social problems associated with that product.
Environmentalists and other bottle bill enthusiasts oppose the industry-supported alternative. "It doesn't focus on the major element of the litter problem" -- the bottle and can industry, said McCollum of the IEC.
A shift of battlegroundsIt's a no-win situation for legislators because no matter which bill they back, they risk losing support from the special interest groups that oppose it. However, O'Brien, sponsor of H.B. 2703, has put himself in a can't-lose position: He said he prefers Pierce's H.B. 5, but views his own bill as an alternative that could work to reduce litter. The House Environment Committee approved H.B. 2703 last spring, and the bill advanced to passage stage where it stalled when some minor amendments could not be agreed to. Supporters are confident the House will approve the measure next year.
It may be that the next bottle bill battle will not occur in the General Assembly. It may shift to the Illinois Pollution Control Board. At issue is whether the board should adopt mandatory deposit regulations as part of the state Environmental Protection Act. An environmental impact study was expected to be submitted to the board in August.
An unlikely solutionThe most basic question is not whether the state will adopt a statute or administrative rule, but whether we are willing to pay to conserve resources and preserve the environment -- and how much? It seems clear that if taxpayers are willing to pick up the tab for conservation and preservation, the costs of recycling and a retraining program for those employed by the can and bottling industry must be included. These combined costs will inevitably be passed on to us at the supermarket and liquor store.
It could be argued that Illinois doesn't really need another state law or program. If we don't want to add to the national garbage heap, we can buy beer and soft drinks in returnable bottles. An unlikely solution? Probably. But an informed source tells me that the cheapest beer buy in Springfield is by the case in returnable bottles. Even the cardboard case is returnable. Cheers.
Ray Urchel is a graduate of the Public Affairs Reporting master's degree program at Sangamon State University.September 1979 / Illinois Issues / 13