Bottle bills are firmly on the political agenda in the US and David Robertson believes drinks companies, traditionally opposed to such measures, will have to come up with new arguments to counter the strong case being put forward by environmentalists and being acted on by both state and national lawmakers.

The introduction in Hawaii last month of a law requiring companies to offer a 5c refund on all recycled beverage containers has re-kindled a war which has been waged between environmentalists and drinks companies in the US for the last 30 years.

Drinks companies are opposed to such legislation and one could assume their lobbying is reasonably effective. This was the first such "bottle bill" to reach the statute book for 16 years.

But there are signs that the environmentalists' arguments are gaining credibility among legislators. New York, which already has a bottle bill covering alcoholic beverage containers, has announced its intention to expand its bill to soft drink containers. And, most disturbing of all for the drinks companies, in the US senate Jim Jeffords has proposed legislation that would lead to a national bottle bill.

While congressmen and women regularly propose such measures, this is the first time since Bill Clinton ran for office in 1992 that such a proposal has a genuine chance of succeeding. Jeffords is the Republican who controversially became an independent after President Bush's victory and is considered the best hope for securing cross-party support for a national bill.

The only good news for the drinks industry was the decision in April by the city of Columbia in Missouri to ditch its bottle bill, the first time one of these bills has ever been repealed.

The environmental lobby is not surprisingly in favour of bottle bills but every move made by environmentalists is heavily, and expensively, opposed by the drinks industry and the greens face a huge battle to further their cause.

The argument in favour of bottle bills relates to their success in encouraging recycling. Here the figures speak for themselves. In the 10 states with some form of bottle bill (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont), more aluminium cans are recycled than in the other 40 states put together. In the 10 states, 422 bottles and cans are recycled per capita a year compared with 127 in non-bill states.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), this means that in 1999, 114 billion beverage containers were thrown away rather than recycled, a 50% increase in waste since 1992. The CRI, whose figures are disputed, also contends that the 50.7 billion aluminium cans not recycled in 2001 represent 16 million barrels of crude oil or electricity supply to 2.7 million homes.

 In Hawaii, says the Sierra Club, 800 million beverage containers are used a year with 75,000 thrown in the trash every hour. "We were seeking solutions to Hawaii's solid waste and litter problems, and the beverage industry's 30 year old recycled arguments against the bottle bill were just not credible," said representative Hermina Morita who sponsored the state's bill.

Powerful drinks corporations like Coke, Pepsico and Anheuser-Busch and their trade groups like the Aluminium Association and National Soft Drink Association (NSDA), represent the opposition to bottle bills. Their main argument is that offering refunds on bottles returned to grocery stores or processing centres creates an inefficient system that increases prices for consumers. They also argue that bottle bills are an overemphasis on items that represent less than 5% of the total waste stream.

According to the NSDA, the extra drivers required to pick up returned containers add an extra 20% to drinks companies' transport costs. Companies are also required to pay handling fees to supermarkets who sort and collect the returns. All of these additional expenses are passed onto the consumer.

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"The government mandates that people must recycle if they want to get their deposits back," says Sean McBride, director of communications at the NSDA. "It is taxing on consumers to store used beverage containers and then they must find a way to return them to a redemption centre. It is a tax on consumers unable to return their used containers, like people who rely on mass transit or the elderly. This is money out of their pocket."

The industry favours placing greater emphasis on general "curb-side" recycling. It points out that aluminium cans are the most valuable item to be recycled and removing them from normal curb-side recycling takes away much of the incentive for companies to undertake this service. "We in the beverage industry are always looking for ways to improve approaches to recycling," adds McBride. "We are currently supporting the all-bottle concept."

In the US, plastic containers are allocated a recycling number between one and six. Recycling firms generally only ask for containers marked one or two to be placed in recycling bins and the NSDA wants this expanded to all plastic containers. It is also sponsoring massive litter clear-ups as a means of generating community goodwill.

But in reality these are small measures and if the drinks industry wants to continue fighting bottle bill proposals and amendments it will have to spend a lot of money convincing legislators they are a bad idea. Alternatively it could come up with serious and workable alternatives to encourage more recycling.