Dear EarthTalk: Why don’t more states mandate deposits on beverage bottles as incentives for people to return them? Most bottles I’ve seen only list a few states on them. – Alan Wu, Cary, N.C.
So-called bottle bills, otherwise known as container recycling laws, mandate that certain types of beverage containers require a small deposit (usually 5 or 10 cents) at checkout beyond the price of the beverage itself. Customers can return the empty containers later and reclaim their nickels and dimes.
The idea is to provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle and to force industry to re-use the raw materials. According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a California-based non-profit which encourages the collection and recycling of packaging materials (and runs the website BottleBill.org), the benefits of bottle bills include:
Supplying recyclable materials for a high-demand market; conserving energy, natural resources and landfill space; creating new businesses and green jobs; and reducing waste disposal costs and litter.
The 10 U.S. states that currently have container recycling laws recycle at least 70 percent of their bottles and cans; this amounts to a recycling rate 2.5 times higher than in states without bottle bills.
Beverage containers make up a whopping 5.6 percent of the overall U.S. waste stream, so every bottle and can that gets recycled counts toward freeing up landfill space. And CRI reports that beverage containers account for some 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from landfilling municipal solid waste and replacing the wasted products with new ones made from virgin feedstock. So by promoting more recycling, bottle bills indirectly reduce our carbon footprints.
The 10 U.S. states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Delaware’s legislature repealed its bottle bill after almost three decades on the books last year as the state’s bottle recycling rate had dropped to just 12 percent due to more and more retailers refusing to deal with the hassle of accepting returned containers.
In place of its bottle bill, Delaware enacted a $0.04/bottle recycling fee that will help defray the costs of starting up a curbside recycling pickup system to service the entire state.
“We are extremely disappointed they chose to repeal their law, rather than enforce it,” reported CRI’s Susan Collins, adding that the new fee places a burden on consumers only. “Consumers will be subsidizing the producers and that is unfair.” CRI supports “extended producer responsibility” where producers and consumers together pay for the life cycle costs of product packaging.
Beyond Delaware, the main reason bottle bills haven’t caught on is because of opposition to them by the beverage industry, which doesn’t want to bear the costs of recycling and claims that the extra nickel or dime on the initial cost of the beverage is enough to turn potential customers away.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) found that the beverage industry and its representatives spent about $14 million in campaign contributions aimed at defeating a national bottle bill between 1989 and 1994. Meanwhile, members of a Senate committee who voted against national bottle bill legislation in 1992 received some 75 times more in beverage-industry PAC money than those who voted in favor of the bill.
Contacts: Container Recycling Institute, www.container-recycling.org; USPIRG, www.uspirg.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Most gold mining operations use cyanide to extract gold from surrounding rock. What are the environmental implications of this, and are there alternatives? – J. Pelton, via e-mail
Although “cyanidation” — the use of a sodium cyanide compound to separate a precious metal from finely ground rock — has become less common in other forms of mining, it is still the dominant practice in gold mining. Some 90 percent of gold mines around the world employ cyanidation to harvest their loot.
“In gold mining, a diluted cyanide solution is sprayed on crushed ore that is placed in piles or mixed with ore in enclosed vats,” reports the State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), a project of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. “The cyanide attaches to minute particles of gold to form a water-soluble, gold-cyanide compound from which the gold can be recovered.”
But of course not all the cyanide gets recovered. Some of it gets spilled, and some is left within mine waste that is often buried underground woefully close to groundwater, leaving neighbors and public health officials worried about its effects on drinking water and on surrounding ecosystems and local wildlife.
“Mining and regulatory documents often state that cyanide in water rapidly breaks down in the presence of sunlight into largely harmless substances, such as carbon dioxide and nitrate or ammonia,” reports Earthworks, a Washington, DC-based non-profit.
“However, cyanide also tends to react readily with many other chemical elements and is known to form, at a minimum, hundreds of different compounds.” While many of these compounds are less toxic than the original cyanide, says Earthworks, they can still persist in the environment and accumulate in fish and plant tissues, wreaking havoc on up the food chain.
In 2000, a breach in a tailings (mining waste) dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulted in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed. Nearly all aquatic life in nearby waters died, while drinking water supplies were cut off for some 2.5 million people.
In the wake of this accident, gold miners around the world have been taking steps to deal with tailings in a safer manner, through the use of special systems designed to prevent cyanide or its breakdown compounds from escaping into the environment. But such precautions at present are only voluntary.
Regulators in the U.S. — the third largest gold producer after South Africa and Australia — don’t require mine operators to monitor cyanide and its breakdown compounds in nearby groundwater and water bodies, so no one knows just how big a problem might be.
One promising alternative to using cyanide in gold mines is the Haber Gold Process, a non-toxic extraction system that tests have shown can result in more gold recovery over a shorter period than cyanidation.
Another alternative is YES Technologies’ biocatalyzed leaching process which proponents say is 200 times less toxic than cyanide. But with cyanidation well-entrenched in the industry and regulators looking the other way, these alternatives face an uphill battle in gaining widespread adoption.
Contacts: State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), www.serconline.org; Earthworks, www.earthworksaction.org; Haber Gold Process, www.habercorp.com/index.php?id=23; YES Technologies’ Cyanide-free Biocatalyzed Leaching, yestech.com/tech/gold1.htm.
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