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Florida could enact a 20-cent deposit on bottles and cans. Here's what you need to know.

Two Florida legislators want the state to introduce a deposit on cans and bottles to reduce litter and increase recycling.  (Times 2014)
Two Florida legislators want the state to introduce a deposit on cans and bottles to reduce litter and increase recycling. (Times 2014)
Published Mar. 9

Depending on when and where you grew up, you might remember collecting a deposit for returning empty beer bottles and soda cans. The local grocer or convenience store would give you a nickel or dime for each one.

Kids turned in the recyclables to buy baseball cards or candy. Teenagers would scrounge enough to pay for an extra gallon of gas. Scout troops and high school bands had bottle drives to raise money.

Ten states — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont — employ what are often called bottle bills or deposit laws.

Now, legislation pending before the state House and Senate would create a similar system in Florida. House Bill 853 and Senate Bill 672 call for consumers to pay a 20-cent or 30-cent deposit on plastic, glass and aluminum containers between 6 fluid ounces and a gallon. That's substantially more than the 5 cents to 15 cents charged in other states.

Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, who introduced the Senate bill, said the extra financial incentive would translate to less litter and substantially higher recycling rates. Besides, he said, consumers get the money back when they return the bottles and cans.

"It's an easy and effective way to get trash out of our streams and lakes," he said. "Instead of piling up in landfills, it gets recycled."

The proposed law raises some questions:

Would the recycling rates increase enough to make it worth the hassle of implementing such a system?

States with deposit laws keep careful track of how often people turn in bottles and cans to collect the deposit.

On average, about 70 percent of bottles and cans get returned in the 10 bottle deposit states. That includes several states that still collect just 5 cents. The states that charge more, often have higher return rates. In Michigan, which charges 10 cents, more than 9 out of every 10 bottles and cans get turned in for the deposit.

MORE LEGISLATIVE NEWS: Florida Senate approves right to smoke medial pot.

The accounting in states without deposit laws isn't as good. That makes comparisons tricky. With that in mind, estimates for how many bottles and cans get recycled in those states generally range between 20 and 30 percent.

So a 20- or 30-cent deposit would likely have a significant impact on how many bottles and cans get recycled in Florida.

The catch: The bottles and aluminum cans that would require a deposit make up a small slice of the waste stream. Increasing the recycling rate for those items won't necessarily have a huge impact on overall recycling rates.

Take Michigan. Even with an impressive redemption rate for bottles and cans, its overall recycling rate is below 20 percent. The national average is about 35 percent.

How much would a deposit law cut down on litter?

Again, this is tricky. There aren't that many studies on how deposit laws impact litter. A few suggest that bottles and cans make up about 15 percent of the litter on our roads and in our parks. Others peg it closer to 5 percent.

Whatever the number, it stands to reason that a 20- or 30-cent deposit would encourage people to pick up eligible bottles and cans — and not toss them away to begin with.

Who's likely to push back against a deposit law?

The programs remain popular in most of the states that have them, at least among consumers. But in states that have considered a deposit system in recent years, retailers and beverage distributors often balk, calling the programs costly and cumbersome.

Stores that sell beer, soda or other containers covered by the laws are usually required to accept returns. That means sorting and storing. It also requires updating accounting systems to keep track of deposits collected and then redeemed.

Under the Florida proposal, retailers would get at least a 20 percent cut. In other words, for every $100 in deposits a retailer returns to consumers, it would collect $20 for the trouble. That would help soften the blow and might keep some retailers from actively opposing the bill.

The Florida Retail Federation doesn't have a position yet. It's analyzing the bill and speaking with members about the impact.

Companies that set up redemption centers where consumers can return bottles and cans would also be eligible to collect the 20 percent fee. The centers usually include reverse vending machines. Consumers put the bottles and cans into separate slots and the machine kicks out the refund.

"What's not to love?" Rader said.

Quite a lot, if you talk to beverage distributors, many of who are already lining up against the legislation. In Florida, they would be required to pay the 20 percent fee to retailers.

In states with deposit laws, the programs cost about a penny to 4 cents per item to operate, according to the agencies that oversee them. Given the slim margins on beverage products, distributors would likely raise prices to cover those costs, said Elizabeth DeWitt, executive director of the Florida Beverage Association.

DeWitt said her members prefer supporting curbside recycling programs. They are more convenient for consumers, who don't have to store bottles and cans and then lug them to a store or redemption center, she said.

"Curbside programs are much more efficient, and they encourage people to recycle all the items that can be recycled not just a select few with deposits," said DeWitt, who will lobby against the bill.

A deposit program could also interfere with contracts that cities and counties have with their curbside recycling companies. Those companies reap profits from some of the items they pick up. If the deposit program diverts valuable products away, the recycling companies may want to renegotiate what they charge.

Rader didn't see that as insurmountable. If anything, the companies would have to pick up less tonnage, which would allow them to cover their territory faster, cutting down on costs.

"Nothing is perfect," he said. "But this is too important for our environment to let little things get in the way."

What happens to the unclaimed deposits?

Despite high return rates, states with deposit laws see tens of millions of dollars in unredeemed deposits pile up each year. In Oregon, a state with a fifth of Florida's population, consumers fail to collect about $25 million annually.

Some states split the windfall with retailers. Others use it to help pay for recycling efforts or kick it into their general fund. The Florida legislation doesn't say how unredeemed deposits would get divvied up.

Will the bill pass into law?

Probably not. It helps that there is a similar bill in the House. But Rader and Rep. Richard Stark, who filed the House bill, are both Democrats in a Republican-dominated Legislature. Rader and others have tried this in the past with no success.

Nationally, it's been years since a state started a new deposit program.

The distributors are a powerful lobby, who often get their way.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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