Back to bottle deposits

WHAT is the most effective way of reducing litter? Short of shooting litterers and banning packaging, plastic bags and cigarettes, I mean.

The answer is double barrelled: have fewer people dropping litter and more people picking it up. The way to do that is obvious too, and the proposal for a deposit of 10¢ a bottle or can or carton being promoted anew to increasingly sympathetic state governments captures the great human motivator neatly.

But the obvious effectiveness of a deposit scheme to reduce litter won’t discourage the beverage industry from trying to hide its self interest behind incessant argument any more than the obvious effectiveness of reducing pub hours discouraged the pub industry from a campaign of tedious nonsense and political magnanimity.

Just over a decade ago when the NSW government ordered an inquiry into a deposit scheme the beverage industry dug deep. The environment would be damaged, it argued, by cars travelling to collection depots, water would be wasted cleaning containers, and scavengers would spill rubbish as they rummaged for containers. Adding to the industry’s desperate concern for the environment was that there was to be no deposit scheme for cigarette butts, bus tickets and burger boxes.

The beverage industry won that day, with then Premier Bob Carr reneging on a six-year-old election promise to introduce a container-deposit scheme and refusing to release the report of the inquiry that had stirred so much concern about the environment from the industry that does so much to damage it. The Greens used a parliamentary tactic to force the release of the report and the party has since used the findings to support a call for a deposit scheme. The Greens’ Cate Faehrmann and independent Clover Moore are planning to introduce a bill for such a scheme, and a national 10¢-a-container deposit is to be discussed at a meeting of state environment ministers in August.

South Australia has had a container-deposit scheme since the mid 1970s, introduced at the time NSW was bringing its to an end, and the Northern Territory introduced the scheme this year. It appears that Tasmania will be next.

The beverage industry’s main argument this time is that such a scheme would add up to $4 to the cost of a case of beer and 20¢ to a can of soft drink, and the environmental groups that have banded together as the Boomerang Alliance to promote the container-deposit scheme say the wholesale cost of a can of drink will increase by just half of 1¢.

Hey, is it such a bad thing if the price of a carton beer goes up? Would we rather have less litter or cheap beer? The effectiveness of offering 10¢ a container to reduce litter does not seem to be in dispute by anyone, not even by the environmentally anxious beverage industry, and that effectiveness will be for many, even for those who, like me, buy the occasional case of beer, the over-riding issue.

A fortnight ago I described the impact of beer bottles and cans and other litter on Stockton Beach, and while a container-deposit scheme would not help what’s already there it would mean that precious few beer bottles or cans would be left there by the drinkers or passers-by. But it is not about just beer bottles and cans. The proposed NSW scheme, and probably a national scheme, would cover containers for alcoholic drinks, soft drinks, juice, water and milk, perhaps half of the litter that blights our open spaces and roadsides.

The refund of the 10¢ deposit could be obtained at collection depots or, according to the NSW proposal, at reverse vending machines, and the NSW push suggests that charities could become approved collection depots for those willing to forgo the 10¢ deposit. Australia would be swarming with bag-over-the-shoulder charity workers, kids and adults who know the value of 10¢!

And let’s target the ubiquitous packaging of Maccas and other fast-food chains next with a 1¢-a-gram refund.

Should the deposit scheme for drink containers extend to fast food packaging?

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