My past keeps recycling, and everything old is new again. Last year I was asked to write papers about NIMBY issues affecting nuclear waste recycling and high speed rail development, something I last worked on three decades ago. Now the Massachusetts “bottle bill” is in the news again, with a proposal to extend it to water bottles. This 1981 legislation, originally conceived as a litter reduction measure (for which it works very well), requires deposits for bottles in which various drinks are sold (usually at least beer and soft drinks) redeemable from a merchant selling the same product (the right way) or at a recycling center (the wrong way, as California implemented it). The political history of this policy is something of a mystery. Back in the day, it was very controversial (I know because I wrote a supportive policy analysis for Massachusetts government when I worked there in the Environmental Affairs office; in the end it was passed over the governor’s veto and I count as some sort of coup that I kept my job nevertheless) and gave me a bunch of memorable encounters with lobbyists and the like.

It was also complicated. My colleague Bob Leone warned me when I got embroiled with it that the bottle bill was much more complicated in fact, given the structure and technology of the beverage industry, than anyone on either side of the debate realized, and he was right. It continues to puzzle me that ten states (CA,VT,NY,CT,MA,IA,MI,OR,ME,HI) have bottle bills (laws). After this much experience, I would think it would be clear that it’s either a bad idea or a good idea, but only one has repealed theirs (DE), and no new bottle bills have been enacted since the initial flurry. Also, I understand “VT but not NH”, but not “OR and CA but not WA”, nor “MI and IA but not WI or MN”. Strange.

The MA proposal to cover water bottles is a fine idea, partly because water bottles are all over the place and just as litterous as beer cans, partly because bottled water, especially in places like Massachusetts with excellent tap water, is a thumb in the eye of poor Gaia in many ways. Hauling it around, and the bottles themselves, are profoundly ungreen. We’ve finally managed to mostly drive it out of lunches and meetings at UC Berkeley and many other institutions, and right-thinking people are getting the idea, but something a lot like a tax on this wretched product is a policy winner and I wish the Bay State forces of light well in their enterprise.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.