Egremont — As news was breaking of Hurricane Harvey’s terrible assault on Houston, a member of the Egremont Green Committee put out a call for volunteers to help run a month-long victim-relief drive. The idea was to collect 5-cent deposit containers from the town transfer station and redeem them for a grand total check to be mailed at the end of the month.
But then Harvey turned into Irma, which turned into Juan, which turned into Katia, Lee and then, devastatingly for Puerto Rico, Maria.
As terrifying weather just kept coming, making September the most active Atlantic hurricane month on record, it was hard to be sure where our money would be going. All we really knew was that the dire warnings that climate scientists have been making for years, about angry weather ahead, seemed to be coming all too true.
By the end of the drive, on September 30, we had collected a grand total of $823.
If you measure the project purely by the funds we raised for the Salvation Army, our chosen charity, we were working, at best, at a rate of $5 an hour.
From the beginning, we knew it was going to be labor intensive. It still felt good to be doing something.
And the drive produced another benefit. By diverting a steady stream of cans, glass and plastic, the town’s recycling dumpster for empty containers filled up more slowly. In September 2016, the town paid for four hauls of this dumpster. This year it was just two. Each dumpster haul costs the town $250, so the drive contributed to a savings of $500 for the town.
To run the drive, we set up collection barrels next to the container recycling dumpster. As people approached with their bags and bins, we asked them to donate anything that was deposit-worthy. Often, we wound up searching together with our neighbors for the barely visible “MA” engraved or stamped somewhere on the item’s surface. Some volunteers also became proficient at fishing through the recycling dumpster with long-handled grabbers and pulling out deposit containers that we hadn’t managed to intercept.
When the transfer station closed, we loaded our cars or trucks with black contractor bags full of sticky cans, plastic bottles and tubs of beer bottles, and headed to the Plaza Package redemption center in Great Barrington. There, the very helpful staff taught us how to get along with the machines that read the bar codes and then crushed, crunched and pulverized what we fed them. (Plaza Package staffers empty out the machines throughout the day and package the processed material for pickup by recyclers, who buy it by weight.)
At the main register, we turned in the receipts. A big day — always a Sunday — would be around $100. During the week, we came away with $20 or $30.
As the month wore on, our residents came to expect us. More and more came with their deposit containers already sorted, which greatly eased the process.
During October, the Environment Committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group is taking over where the hurricane drive leaves off. It will be collecting deposit containers at the transfer station to pay for a public viewing of the stunning documentary “A Plastic Ocean.” The free showing will be at the Mason Library in Great Barrington, on Friday evening, November 10.
We hope this is the start of something; that other nonprofit fundraisers will also want to occupy our transfer station for other months of the year, for their own causes.
These kinds of drives are only possible in nine other states.
That’s because only 10 states and the U.S. territory of Guam, have bottle bills, also known as container deposit laws, which place small deposits on containers that can be redeemed when they are returned.
But as green as our Massachusetts Bottle Bill might makes us feel, it leaves plenty of room for improvement.
For one thing, what about that “MA” deposit mark craftily hidden somewhere on the surface of the container? Couldn’t it be made easier to spot? Right now, many people don’t even know that “MA” is what they are looking for. Some think those tiny clock-like symbols, identifying the type of plastic used in manufacturing, signify a deposit. As a result, lots of wrong material — so-called contamination — winds up in collection bins; a bane of any redemption effort.
Beyond the near invisibility of the all-important deposit mark, the chief shortcoming of the law is that it only applies to carbonated beverages.
To a consumer, this can seem nonsensical. Why take a bottle of Poland Spring’s sparkling water in for redemption, but not on a look-alike bottle of flat water by the same company? Why is there a deposit on hard iced tea, but not on hard cider? It can be particularly puzzling to people who are familiar with the containers laws in New York and Connecticut, because the details vary from state to state.
The carbonation-only rule also lets many manufacturers off the hook, leaving the disposal of their packaging debris up to taxpayers.
Bottle bill legislation is often heavily opposed by beverage industry lobbyists, but advocates such as former Gov. Deval Patrick argue that they help reduce roadside trash and relieve the pressure on landfills.
In 2010 Patrick proposed an expansion of our bottle bill to include water, juice, and energy drink and sport drink containers. He argued this was necessary, in part, because of the explosion of new types of drinks in recent years not covered by the bill.
So far, the law has not been updated or expanded. But bottle bill initiatives are often on the statewide ballot in election years, so keep your eyes out for a chance to update the 35-year-old law.
If more companies were required to take back their empty containers it’s easy to imagine how quickly they would reduce packaging excess and hunt for recycling innovations. A student in Iceland, for instance, has just invented a biodegradable container that is made from red algae. Many new technologies such as this could help reduce waste. But industry needs a little nudge now and then to decide they are worth the investment.
And perhaps our nickel limit is too low. Maine, which has a more extensive law, places deposits of 15 cents and 20 cents on some containers.
Our existing bottle law, meanwhile, doesn’t make it all that easy to redeem containers.
Currently, stores are required to redeem a container only for a brand that it sells. That means, after clattering your way to the store with a bunch of bottles that have wound up in your house from a variety of places, the machines will often spit the empties back at you with the dreaded “brand not sold at this store” message blinking on the digital monitor.
Faced with the confusing rules and restrictions of the Massachusetts bill, many people are forgetting the nickel deposit and just tossing all household beverage containers into the town’s recycling dumpster. (Whoosh, away it all goes. That was easy.)
And stores love it; they can keep all those nickels.
But it costs the town.
The Springfield Materials Recycling Facility currently pays Egremont about $35 for the contents of our recycling dumpster. (The current rate is $12 a ton and each dumpster weighs about three tons.) That’s a far better deal than trash, for which the town has to pay a disposal fee. But it’s nowhere near the $250 the town has to pay for every dumpster haul.
So it makes sense for residents to redeem their bottles and cans, or at least to contribute them to future charity drives. (Just like crushing the air out of plastic milk container or an O.J. carton before adding to the recycling dumpster, it really helps reduce the number of times we have to get the dumpster hauled each month.)
If you know of any local drives that are collecting redeemable empties, please let us know and we will try to help spread the word.
And let us know if you are interested in running a drive at our transfer station.
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