Cynthia Oi
Under the Sun
Cynthia Oi

Tweaking law will make
recycling bottles easier

LIKE a lot of people in Hawaii, Pam had good intentions. Even before the bottle redemption law, she had been taking her beverage cans and newspapers to nearby schools for recycling.

She was happy when the state Legislature made bottle recycling a requirement. Like a lot of people, she thought the plan would reduce litter and believed recycling was the environmentally responsible thing to do.

But like a lot of people, she has been thoroughly discouraged.

After gathering cans and bottles and carefully following directives about removing caps and leaving containers uncrushed, she took her stash to a redemption center.

The first trip was a washout; the center wasn't open as advertised. She dragged her bags back home.

The second time, she waited patiently in line, only to find that the center had run out of cash and could not refund her deposits.

By then, the bags of containers had become unsought, familiar burdens; she knew exactly how to wrangle them in and out of her car's trunk with the least effort.

The third time was the charm and she bid them an unfond farewell. However, like a lot of people, she was ready to throw in the towel on the whole recycling bit.

Why, she asked, didn't "they" -- meaning those anonymous government officials, I guess -- set up more redemption centers? Why aren't the stores that sell the drinks taking back the bottles? Didn't the "great minds" who put together the law figure that recycling needs to be convenient? Why make it so tough for people who really want to do the right thing?

Pam's questions are reasonable ones. Not a week goes by without someone raising the same issues.

When news reports declared that the state had collected more than $7 million from the 5-cent-per-container deposits and had refunded less than a tenth of that, the cynical came out of the woodwork to claim that the law was nothing more than a veiled attempt to rip off consumers and plump up state coffers.

Though I count myself among the cynics about government operations and motives, the bottle law doesn't make the grade as far as revenue conspiracies go. Too obvious. It also doesn't qualify for the "pesky environmentalists and their dumb ideas" file either.

The law was a compromise that in the give and take got a little messed up.

In the beginning, the proposal would have required grocery retailers to take back the bottles and cans that contained the drinks they sold -- one of their more profitable products -- and refund customers' deposits.

But retailers didn't want to and said so loudly to their friends and advocates inside and outside the state Capitol. The bill was changed so that only larger retail stores on Oahu would have to set up redemption centers if there were no others in a two-mile radius.

The law, as passed, defers this requirement until later this year. Cynics could see this as a delaying tactic that not only allows time for the law to be repealed -- which has been attempted -- but to make redemption such a pain in the wazoo that consumers would revolt --and some have.

To be fair, because grocery stores generally operate on thin profit margins, it is understandable that their owners don't want to take on additional expenses. Still, there are ways to help them shoulder their responsibilities.

The state can give stores some of the collected deposit funds to defray start-up costs for redemption operations. The law also can be adjusted to let stores hold on to the deposits they collect, make refunds on bottle returns and keep whatever is left for themselves. Except for some monitoring, the state may then be able to extract government from the process, which would be ideal.

These strategies have been talked over in the Legislature. It's not too late to tweak this good law to make it work better.

Pam and lots of frustrated people in Hawaii would be satisfied.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cynthia Oi has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at: coi@starbulletin.com.

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