In the latest show of growing public support for a Tennessee "bottle bill," the Tennessee Sheriffs Association last week endorsed legislation to bring back returnable beverage containers as a way to reduce litter and increase recycling.
In a letter to Gov. Phil Bredesen urging his support for a container deposit, Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker pointed out that litter is more than a health issue. It's an economic issue.
"Prospective home buyers and business owners have priorities when they look to relocate," wrote Barker, who chairs the TSA's Legislative Committee. "Visible trash and litter can be a real deal breaker."
Litter is also a deterrent to tourism, he noted, and using public vehicles to pick up bottles and cans represents "a huge waste of fuel."
Placing a 5-cent, refundable deposit on billions of glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers would not only make a significant dent in the litter stream, Barker said, it would also double funding for the state's comprehensive litter program.
The legislation (SB 1408/ HB 1829) allots $10 million of the unclaimed nickel deposits to fund what is known as the "county litter grants." The present funding source, a pair of long-standing "litter taxes" on beer and soft drinks, will be eliminated if the bill passes.
Some of the litter-grant money goes to Keep Tennessee Beautiful and the counties for litter prevention and education; the rest helps pay for litter pickups using inmates from the county jails.
Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris said he supports anything that will reduce his county's "embarrassing" volume of litter, much of which consists of discarded beer bottles, soda cans, water bottles and other drink containers.
A few years ago, Harris' litter crew spent a day picking up beverage containers separately from other litter; of the 57 garbage bags filled that day, 36 bags, or 63 percent, contained nothing but bottles and cans.
Those results were not atypical, according to Harris, who said that bottles and cans routinely account for "way over half" of what gets picked up along most roads. "And then two days later, you go back and (the roads are) littered up again."
The state's sheriffs are not the only ones who have recently spoken out in favor of the legislation, which currently has 14 bipartisan sponsors. The lead sponsors are Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, and Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory.
Last Tuesday, the Maury County Commission voted 15 to five to endorse the measure; earlier in the month the Maury County Farm Bureau voted unanimously to support it. Numerous other county farm bureaus have written similar resolutions, including the one in Hardin County.
As a farmer in the Hardin County town of Savannah, Frank McGinley, Jr., knows how costly it can be to replace a tractor tire that has been sliced by broken glass, or to provide emergency veterinary care for an injured farm animal. Such damages are the main reason Tennessee's farmers have long been in favor of a container deposit.
Overall public support for the bill is also strong, judging from the heavy voting in three recent online newspaper polls. In December, a poll on the Columbia Daily Herald website logged 1,593 votes, 62 percent in favor of a bottle bill.
An October poll by Murfreesboro's Daily News Journal got 1,215 responses, 68 percent in favor of a deposit. And in July, the Lebanon Democrat in Wilson County concluded a poll in which 75 percent of roughly 150 respondents voted their support for the bill.
None of this comes as a surprise to Scenic Tennessee's Marge Davis, coordinator of the bottle-bill advocacy effort known as Pride of Place (POP). Davis, who lives in Mt. Juliet, rode her bicycle 855 miles around the state in October, talking about the bill to hundreds of Tennesseans from Nashville to Memphis to Union City to Clarksville to Chattanooga to Knoxville to Bristol.
"At least 80 percent of the people I met were strongly in favor of a return to returnables," said Davis. "They deplored the waste, they were fed up with the litter, and they were willing to accept a little bit of sacrifice in order to do something serious about them."
Support was strong even among small grocery-store owners, she noted, a group traditionally assumed to oppose container deposits. "They liked the bill in principle," said Davis, "but they especially liked the fact that while retailers won't be required to take back empties under this bill, they can earn good money by operating a small redemption center on the side."
Under the bill, certified redemption centers will receive a handling fee of 3 cents per container, which the state will collect from the beverage distributors to cover the cost of keeping 200,000 tons of packaging out of the state's landfills, ditches and waterways and seeing that it gets returned to the manufacturing stream.
Beverage companies balk at the handling fee, but Davis notes that at current scrap prices and high market demand, that's just about what the recycled containers are worth.
And nothing, she notes, assures high recycling rates like a monetary incentive. Tennesseans currently recycle a meager 10 percent of the 4.2 billion beverage containers they consume each year. With a five-cent deposit, this is expected to increase to around 85 percent.
Recycling benefits aside, said Davis, the most important point is that a majority of Tennesseans supports the bill. This, she said, is the message Tennessee's legislators need to hear.
"Most legislators acknowledge that the bottle bill will create jobs, stimulate manufacturing, save landfill space, raise money for schools and help clean up the roads," said Davis. "The key now is making sure they know their constituents want it."