Joseph Phelps saw a problem, and proposed a solution. The parks of Chicago are filled with broken glass, he told his colleagues on the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners, to which Eugene Sawyer had just appointed him. Let’s pass a resolution favoring a deposit on all bottles sold in Chicago, so that people will return bottles to the store instead of littering and breaking them.

Phelps’s resolution, proposed during his first full board meeting last November 16, passed unanimously. It read, “It is resolved that the Board of Commissioners of the Chicago Park District urge the honorable Eugene Sawyer and the Chicago City Council to pass into law an ordinance which forbids the sale of nonreturnable beverage containers within the limits of the City of Chicago . . .”

The commissioners passed their resolution along to 13th Ward Alderman John Madrzyk, who introduced in the City Council an ordinance requiring a minimum ten-cent deposit on all beer and soft-drink bottles sold in Chicago. The proposal was referred to 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell’s Committee on Municipal Code Revision.

The committee meeting of November 28 was the first opportunity supporters and detractors of the proposal had to air their views. Reactions were mixed and predictable, as they have been across the country whenever bottle-deposit bills have been introduced. Since Oregon passed the country’s first such law in 1971, environmentalists have favored the bills, while beverage industry lobbyists–using far greater financial resources–have worked to defeat them. Currently, ten states have bottle-deposit laws, but initiatives to pass them have been defeated in at least five other states.

If Chicago’s bill passes, it would be a first for a major city. A bottle bill was defeated in Washington, D.C., in early 1987 after a bitter campaign in which beverage industry interests outspent bottle bill proponents by more than 15 to 1–a typical proportion. The Washington Post later reported that industry lobbyists spent $55 per vote to defeat the bill.

No one argues with Phelps’s goal of reducing the amount of broken glass in the parks. A former park supervisor, Phelps was a Park District employee who worked in Chicago parks for 13 and a half years before becoming a commissioner. “Every day as I worked in the parks I saw a carnage of children and adults who were cut on their feet and legs, on a daily basis,” he says.

“The Park District of Chicago has approximately 875 reported lacerations as a result of broken glass each year. . . . But only a small fraction of patrons who are injured bother to go to the field house and report it. Most go straight home, or to their car, not all the way across the park to the field house to fill out a report.”

Phelps says that in the last four years the Park District has paid out $200,000 in claims to people lacerated by glass. The cost becomes even greater, he says, when you figure in the amount of time park staff spend trying to pick up broken glass–which cannot be done easily either by hand or with the Park District’s vacuum machines. “We expend an enormous amount of money to pick up broken glass that we could spend elsewhere,” says Phelps.

There is little doubt that a bottle bill would reduce injuries. Doctors in Massachusetts reported a 60 percent reduction in glass lacerations among children after a minimum five-cent bottle deposit was instituted there in 1981.

“We have a complicated litter problem throughout the city,” says Erma Tranter, executive director of Friends of the Parks. She testified in favor of the proposal at the November 28 hearing, but urged the committee to put off a vote until Friends of the Parks could research the effects of bottle bills in other states. That research is now done. “Plastic and glass and cans littering the parks and streets and alleys begets more litter,” says Tranter. “You know, if it looks clean people don’t drop things there; if it looks dirty what’s the difference if I drop this Kleenex out?”

Tranter points to studies done in Michigan, which passed a deposit law in 1976. Total roadway litter in the state was reduced by 41 percent in a year; roadway bottle litter was reduced by 93 percent. A 1988 report by the Washington-based Environmental Action Foundation found that return rates for glass bottles ranged between 88 and 95 percent in seven bottle bill states.

Industry spokesmen don’t dispute those figures, but claim that a bottle bill. would hit the public in the wallet. “It is going to cost consumers a good deal of money says David Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. “It has been shown that in states that have deposit ordinances there’s a very significant increase in costs for those beverages.”

Nonsense, replies Tranter. “There are no extra costs on Coke when you return the bottles,” she says. “There aren’t going to be additional costs to beverages; if anything, they’ve been reduced [in states that have passed bottle bills], in some of the studies that we’ve got. [Consumers] would just be forced to be more preservation minded or environmentally aware. When you go back to the store and cart in the same six-pack that you carted out, it’s not a great inconvenience. People do that now; they do that regularly with certain bottles that do have refunds.”

She points to the study by the Environmental Action Foundation, which reported that soft-drink prices in Massachusetts and New York remained the same or declined after those states passed bottle bills.

Vite also claims that retailers suffer under bottle bills. “It places an undue burden on the retailing community. It forces retailers to be the garbage collectors for the city of Chicago. It forces the retailer to allocate valuable selling space to have bottles returned, to have cans returned, in his or her facility. It requires a significant cash outlay on the part of the retailer to fund the initial purchase of bottles.”

Tranter responds that retailers already buy back some bottles. “They have certain bottles that do have refunds on them. It might mean expanding that area, but all the grocery stores–at least in Michigan–understand that and accept that. They are not crying to reverse that at all.”

From recycling professionals there’s been a mixed response to the proposed ordinance. Dale Alekel-Carlson is the executive director of the Uptown Recycling Station, which runs alley collection programs in several north-side neighborhoods. “A bottle bill would make people aware of how important it is to dispose of containers properly rather than just throwing them in the street or into a landfill; it’s good for recycling,” she says.

But she worries that a bottle bill might encourage retailers to stock more plastic bottles, which would reduce parks injuries but certainly not ameliorate the solid waste problem. “What’s happened in other states is that the grocery stores are not the appropriate places to hold large amounts of scrap materials–so what we’ve seen is a turn to plastics, which are easier to handle.” There is also no guarantee, she says, that the containers that are returned to retailers–especially plastic, which is harder to reuse than glass or aluminum–will be recycled. (However, two large metal-recycling plants were opened in Michigan after passage of the bottle bill there.)

Recyclers also worry that a bottle bill could reduce the impetus for a comprehensive recycling program in Chicago–though action toward such a program has been slow. If glass and plastic were returned to stores, a curbside recycling effort would have to concentrate on newspapers and aluminum–thereby diminishing economic incentives for recyclers. Alekel-Carlson would rather see a collection program that emphasizes curbside pickups. “People want to recycle,” she says. “People want collection programs. Voluntary recycling will work if people don’t have to go anywhere.”

David Vite claims that consumers would make a twofold response to bottle deposits: Chicagoans would travel to the deposit-free suburbs to buy their beer and soft drinks; and those who shop in the city would buy more aluminum cans, which are not covered by the proposed ordinance. “So the solid waste problem isn’t covered at all,” he says.

Still, far more aluminum cans are currently recycled than bottles, because aluminum commands relatively high buy-back prices–so a high proportion of cans are kept from landfills by consumers or scavengers. As for the public response, Carolyn Raffensperger, state field representative of the Great Lakes chapter of the Sierra Club, says, “My experience with people is that they’re very responsive, and in many cases would come to Chicago because of the bottle legislation. . . . I think there’s a lot of public momentum for it.”

Raffensperger views the proposed ordinance as a means of combating Chicago’s solid waste crisis. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, that state’s total volume of solid waste was reduced by 6 to 8 percent as a result of the deposit law, for a yearly savings of $17.3 million in disposal costs. That’s relief sorely needed in Chicago, which is projected to run out of landfill space around 1992.

Container industry advocates claim that a voluntary recycling program in Chicago could clean up the streets and parks without victimizing the beverage industry.

“It’s a matter of education,” says Rich Krooswyk, personnel director of Ball-InCon Glass Packaging Corporation in Dolton, which buys back used glass to reprocess into new containers. Krooswyk says the deposit ordinance would cut the output at glass companies and cause a loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs; jobs created would be low-paying ones collecting and shipping recycled containers. Statistics from other states with bottle bills notably Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts–show that retail, distribution, and recycling jobs have been created since those states passed bottle bills.

“A voluntary recycling program hasn’t worked,” replies Erma Tranter. Voluntary programs, she says, don’t give companies enough economic incentive to recycle products like plastic soft-drink bottles, since–with no financial incentive for consumers to return containers–they have no steady stream of used containers to rely on. Indeed, the only plastics-recycling programs of any significance rely on the plastic containers returned in the states with deposit laws. “I think it would probably stimulate interest in figuring out what could be done with them,” Tranter says of the plastic containers in Chicago.

Joseph Phelps is not opposed to a voluntary recycling program, but doubts that such a program could be as effective as a deposit requirement. “If anyone can give me a proposal on how to reduce broken glass in the parks by 90 percent, cheaply, efficiently, and safely, I’ll do it,” he says. But he says he hasn’t seen any evidence that a voluntary recycling program could achieve that goal.

The next meeting of the Committee on Municipal Code Revision–which has not been scheduled yet–is likely to be a lively affair, as environmentalists and industry lobbyists try to sway aldermen. Local representatives of the Green Party have announced that they will try to collect 200,000 signatures to place a bottle-deposit bill on an election ballot in the city. Representatives of the Chicagoland Bicycling Federation will campaign for the bill because it will reduce the incidence of flat tires on Chicago streets.

Erma Tranter supposes that a Chicago ordinance would increase the chances for passage of a statewide bottle bill. A proposal for such a law is slated to be introduced later this year, but then, such proposals have been made and defeated several times in the past. “If the Chicago ordinance passed–the problems have never materialized, and they won’t materialize here–all those problems that the bottlers have sworn, ‘the world’s going to collapse,’ ‘the sky is falling’ kind of thing, will not happen,” says Tranter. “It will be easier to go to the state then in a couple of years and get a state bill.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Ralph Creasman.