Arlington Fairfax Chapter

of the

Izaak Walton League of America

Watershed Conservation Activities

Container Deposits in Virginia

An Economic Incentive to Reduce Trash in Our Waterways.

by Colin Riley

One type of trash that our volunteers frequently encounter are disposable beverage containers. If you talk to a beverage industry spokesman about this, he or she will likely tell you that beverage containers make up less than 5% of the waste stream produced by Americans. While this is certainly true, it is not the whole story.

The fact is that improperly discarded soda cans, beer bottles and plastic water bottles are a major contributor to solid waste pollution making its way into inland waterways. Our group's experience has been that at any given Adopt A Stream or Adopt A Highway cleanup, beverage containers will account for a third to a half of the total number of items that we pick up.
Shown below are some typical data from the weekend of September 13, 2008.

Trash collected from the shoreline of Mason Neck State Park September 13, 2008

Description Quantity Percentage of Total
Plastic Beverage Bottles 318 29.55
Glass Beverage Bottles 148 13.75
Aluminum Cans 89 8.27
Styrofoam fragments, cups, plates etc 203 18.87
Misc items 318 29.55
Total Items 1076 100

At the Virginia Waterways Cleanup on Sept 13th of the 51.6 % of the items counted in the bagged trash would likely be included in a beverage deposit if the State of Virgina had one.

Trash collected from Bull Run September 14, 2008

Description Quantity Percentage of Total
Plastic Beverage Bottles 312 58.9
Glass Beverage Bottles 68 12.8
Aluminum Cans 18 3.4
Styrofoam fragments,containers,cups 121 22.8
Miscellaneous items 11 2.1
Total Items 530 100.0

At an impromtu cleanup of Bull Run after the flooding caused by tropical storm Hannah, beverage containers were by far the most common type of litter found, making up more than 75 percent of the sample.

One of the more useful tools for combating this source of trash is a beverage container deposit law, also known as a Bottle Bill . Even a required deposit of only 5 cents a container would be enough to reduce the trash going into the watersheds by at least 30 percent. My own experience has been that where there is a bottle deposit people are less likely to throw containers away, and those found on the ground will be quickly picked up.

Most people living in Northern Virginia are probably not aware that for a short time in the late 1970's, Fairfax County required retailers to charge a deposit for each beverage can or bottle sold. If memory serves, the required deposit for each aluminum can was 5 cents and 10 to 15 cents for each bottle depending on its size. At that time I was a kid living in Falls Church and the only way that I could afford to buy a chocolate bar or some twinkies was to scrounge enough deposit bottles and cans to pay for it. That was easier said then done since there was stiff competition among the neighborhood kids for these treasures and a discarded soda bottle did not lay on the ground for very long.

Although I was not aware of it at the time, retailers and bottling companies were vehemently opposed to the measure. Fighting it tooth and nail, they succeeded in eliminating it on August 28, 1980 1 when the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Loundoun County did not have the authority under the Virginia law to enact a container deposit for Alcoholic beverages without the blessing of the Virginia Legislature. I can tell you that it was a devastating economic blow to those under the age of thirteen. "

Over the years subsequent efforts to introduce a State Wide Container Deposit law in Virginia have been repeatedly crushed by the Beverage industry before the bills even had a chance to come up for a vote in the Legislature.

That was not actually the only experience that I have had with bottle bills.

Citizens for A Clean Capital City Committee

In the fall of 1987, I was going to college and working part time for a telemarketering company in Arlington. At work each evening, I would be given a list of phone numbers of registered voters and a script to follow. My job was to call the people on the list and to try to persuade them to do the action desired by the client. The action might be calling a congressman on a specific issue or sending a prewritten letter to a politician or voting in a certain way.

The one client that I remember most was opposed to Initiative 28, the D.C. Bottle Bill, which would require a deposit for every bottle or can of soda or beer sold in the District of Columbia. For each call I would introduce myself by saying "Hello I am calling on Behalf of the Citizens for a Clean Capital City Committee " and then I would follow the script and explain to the voter why they should vote against the measure. I have to confess that I didn't believe in what I was saying and I was probably not very convincing but it was a job. As it happens the antibottle bill effort was successful in the end, the Clean Capital City Committee having spent 2.3 million dollars 2 on the effort, a record in D.C. elections up to that date. At the time I wondered who were these "Citizens" that were so much opposed to a container deposit in D.C.

After the election I found out from the Washington Post that the Clean Capital City Committee was a joint effort of commercial interests, funded by Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Anheuser Busch, Miller Brewing,Safeway, Giant, 7-eleven, the beverage container industry as well as other smaller retailers. What I took away from the experience was that many corporations can be quite ruthless when their economic interests conflict with the Public interest and that well funded campaigns can sway elections.

1. Ed Bruske "Virginia High Court Overturns County Laws on Bottle Deposits"
The Washington Post - 29 Aug 1980 - page A1

2. Tom Sherwood "Tab for Bottle Bill Defeat : $55 a Vote "
The Washington Post - 17 Mar 1988 - page DC1