Lucy Pemoni  /  AP file
Jenny Wells, of Kailua, Hawaii, hands her bags of aluminum cans to workers at a recycling center.
updated 2/11/2005 1:58:33 PM ET 2005-02-11T18:58:33

In a state that relies on its natural beauty to attract tourist dollars, keeping trash off white sand beaches and out of the clean surf apparently isn’t enough of an incentive for people to recycle.

So now Hawaii has what’s commonly known as a bottle law.

Neil Ihrig recently spent four nights in a row collecting drink cans and bottles from neighbors and digging for containers in the trash. He earned $30 to $40 a day for his efforts.

“It’s worth getting dirty,” said Ihrig, a carpentry student at Honolulu Community College. “I used to be lucky if I made five dollars on this stuff.”

During the law's first week, Ihrig and thousands of other Hawaii residents queued up at beverage redemption centers to turn in everything from colorful guava and passion fruit juice cans to beer bottles. They waited hours for payouts of a nickel per can or bottle through Hawaii’s new deposit recycling program.

Though consumers in Hawaii began paying mandatory nickel deposits on aluminum, glass and plastic drink containers in November, they had to wait until Jan. 1, when the redemption centers opened, for the five-cent refunds.

A nonrefundable one-cent fee on top of the deposit helps fund the $22-million program.

Non-carbonated drinks included
In 2002, Hawaii became the first state in 16 years to pass a container redemption law. Previously, 10 states had passed such laws within a 15-year period starting with Oregon in 1971 and ending with California in 1986.

“What happened in Hawaii is definitely historic and has given advocates in other states hope for moving legislation forward,” said Pat Franklin of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va.

Lucy Pemoni  /  AP file
Hawaii's recyclers include Don Raymond, a Kaneohe resident who had just handed over aluminum cans at a recycling center in Kailua.
Although Hawaii’s law excludes milk, wine and liquor bottles, the state joined California and Maine in having one of the most comprehensive deposit programs in the nation because it includes non-carbonated beverages.

Many popular non-carbonated beverages, including bottled waters, teas, sports and juice drinks cropped up after most states had passed their bottle bills.

Approximately 800 million beverage containers are sold in Hawaii each year, according to the state Health Department. The state hopes the program will keep 80 percent from entering island landfills.

Hawaii is so short of landfill space that it has considered shipping its garbage to Washington state and Idaho.

The two recycling companies contracted by the state estimated that during the first week alone, more than 5 million redeemed cans and bottles were kept from Hawaii’s beaches, streets and meager landfill space.

“If this weren’t recycled there would be so much waste,” said Ihrig, the carpentry student.

Ihrig said most people he knows want to keep Hawaii beautiful, but, he added, “It’s obvious that money is the issue.”

Not all are in favor
Some residents complained about long lines, short redemption center hours, too few locations and the extra cost of drinks.

“It’s just another interference with our lifestyle,” said Kerry Dickenson, a transit supervisor for a bus company. “They’re imposing a four percent excise tax, and a penny nonrefundable, plus the five cents we’re getting back. How much more are they gonna charge for all this?”

Before the refund portion of the law went into effect, about 30 people a day showed up at a container redemption center in Honolulu, one of 44 statewide.

During the law's first week, about 120 people waited at the center each day for their cans and bottles to be weighed or counted, workers said. Many were turned away when the recycling truck reached capacity.

“Part of it is growing pains because of a two-month backlog. We expected a rough period, but we think it’ll become second nature before long,” said Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter, which backed the law’s passage.

Opponents in the food and beverage industry argue the reason no other states have passed bottle bills in so long is because it is an inefficient way to recycle and an unnecessary tax burden.

They say curbside recycling programs are much more convenient and effective.

Honolulu cites benefit
“Curbside and deposit are complementary programs,” said Suzanne Jones, recycling coordinator for Honolulu. “The deposit system captures beverages we consume away from home.”

In states with deposit programs, about 490 bottles and cans per person are recycled on average each year, while it’s about 191 in non-deposit states, according to a report by Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling.

Michigan has the highest beverage container recycling rate, about 95 percent, because consumers there pay the highest deposit at 10 cents per can or bottle, Franklin said.

The other states with deposit recycling laws are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Vermont.

“I’m surprised Hawaii hasn’t had this before,” said David Birnbaum, a professor at the University of Hawaii. “I’m from British Columbia and we’ve had this program for years.”

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