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Editorial: Message of a bottle

The drive to get plastic bottles out of our landfills is getting a push from area colleges. There’s also a legislative effort to expand the state’s bottle redemption law to cover plastic bottles, but, unfortunately, that’s a perennial loser.

Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges this year were among U.S. colleges hosting commencements without the ubiquitous plastic water bottle on every seat. Colleges around the country are trying to cut down on bottled water use on campuses. Smith, Amherst and the University of Massachusetts also have campaigns under way.

Colleges are championing the issue primarily for environmental concerns. Plastic water bottles equal tons of trash in already overtaxed landfills.

Yes, they can be recycled, and with 80 percent of Americans having access to a plastics recycling programs, they should be. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 70 percent of plastic water and soda containers end up in landfills.

Anti-plastic bottle organizers also see it as a public health issue and they challenge the marketing message that drives consumers to choose bottled water over tap. They note that some bottled waters are all or partially sourced from municipal water supplies, and the industry is not regulated as closely as municipal water supplies.

At the Mount Holyoke commencement, faculty, staff, seniors and guests found blue reusable bottles filled with tap water at their seats. Students collected 1,000 signatures on a petition urging Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella to make the college bottled-water-free, a move that includes installing 20 hydration stations across campus that dispense filtered water into reusable containers.

Hampshire College stopped selling or distributing bottled water last fall at the urging of a student environmental organization.

Campaigns to eliminate or reduce plastic water bottles are afoot at other 40 U.S. colleges and universities, in addition to the Five Colleges institutions, according to Grace Morris. Morris works for the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International’s “Think Outside The Bottle” campaign to help businesses, organizations and state and local governments decrease bottled water use.

Meanwhile, on Beacon Hill, the Senate voted June 5 to expand the bottle redemption law, adding the 5-cent deposit to more beverage containers, including water, juice, iced teas and energy drinks. The 5-cent deposit now only applies to beer and carbonated beverages. It is estimated that one-third of the 3.3 billion beverages consumed annually in Massachusetts are packaged in plastic containers that would be covered under the proposed expansion of the bottle redemption law.

The measure is now back to the House, which last year rejected a similar bill. For the last 15 years it has become an annual Beacon Hill debate. Environmentalists argue that putting a deposit on more containers is an effective way to increase recycling. They note that since 1982 the bottle bill has seen more than 30 billion containers redeemed, making it the state’s most successful recycling program. They are opposed by the bottling and retail industry, and their powerful lobbyists.

Some legislators have argued that this is a tough economy to be creating what they describe as a new tax. In fact, as we noted on this page last year, the proposals to expand the bottle redemption bill have been killed for the last 15 years — in good economic times as well as bad, despite surveys that show strong public support for it.

Fortunately, young people get it and in urging their colleges to “think outside the bottle” they are adding an important piece to the critical effort to save the earth from ourselves.

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