A Virginia Senate committee today approved in a dramatic 8-to-7 vote a bill to require deposits on beer and soda bottles and cans, giving environmentalists and farmers their first Virginia victory on the issue after a decade of defeats.
The Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, which has killed similar bills repeatedly since 1972, this time turned its back on a spirited lobbying campaign by industry groups to kill the so-called "bottle bill," which is aimed at reducing litter and encouraging recycling. Although the bill faces an uncertain future on the floor of the Senate and in the House of Delegates, supporters were jubilant after the committee vote.
"I'm elated," said Sen. Madison E. Marye, a farmer and service station operator from southwest Virginia who sponsored the bill along with Northern Virginia senators Charles L. Waddell and Clive L. DuVal 2nd. "I think the old standby arguments the industry offered before have been shot down. They're going to have to come up with something new."
Testifying before an overflow hearing room crowd yesterday, Marye bemoaned the discarded bottles and cans that line the driveway to Thomas Jefferson's home, while industry executives said everyone from mom-and-pop grocery stores to Virginia's retarded citizens could be harmed by the bill.
Reynolds Metals Co. of Richmond, a major manufacturer of cans for the beverage industry, coordinated the opposition to the bill, while Sen. Frank W. Nolen, a Reynolds employe, led the losing fight against it on the committee. "The importance of the legislation to the 100,000 people I represent matters more than who I work for, and I'm voting for them," Nolen said after the vote.
Industry executives promised a renewed lobbying effort, with grocery owners, beer distributors and glass bottlers from every part of the state expected to visit their senators.
"From our point of view, we'll try to kill it on the floor," said Joseph Guiffre, a Budweiser distributor and state highway commissioner from Northern Virginia. "Imposing a bottle bill on us is like our trying to impose square wheels on Southern Railway."
Guiffre was responding to a question about Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr., an Alexandria Republican and Southern Railway attorney who abstained from a committee vote last year but supported the bill yesterday. Sen. Evelyn M. Hailey (D-Norfolk), who said her son in Connecticut told her the bottle bill there works well, also switched her vote after opposing it last year when it lost 8 to 6.
"I got two growls in the hall and two 'Good work!' " Hailey said after casting her crucial vote. "Now the lobbyists can go earn their pay."
The proposal would require 10-cent deposits on all beer and carbonated beverage bottles and cans, and all shopkeepers who sell a product would have to be willing to buy back the bottles. Nine states have approved similar laws, but four states rejected bottle bills in multimillion dollar referendum battles last November.
Proponents of the bill say it would save money and energy by spurring recovery of metal and glass, while decreasing litter that is ugly and dangerous to bicyclists and farm animals. Opponents say it places an unfair burden on one segment of industry, increases beer and soda costs to consumers and tends to drive customers across state lines to purchase their beverages.
Gene Moore, director of a Richmond workshop for the retarded and handicapped, said the bottle bill would hurt his program, which gets about $30,000 each year for collecting aluminum cans and selling them to a recycling company. Moore said he had been asked to testify by VOICE, Virginian Organized Industry for a Cleaner Environment. Proponents of the bill said workshops like Moore's could expand their programs under a mandatory deposit law.
Waddell said the bill succeeded today in part because Marye, a well-liked lawmaker with a down-home style, sponsored it instead of DuVal, who represents northern Fairfax County, or Waddell, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties. "We finally decided to let a downstate legislator carry the ball to give it some credibility," said Waddell, who has been pushing for the bill since 1972. "I think it had been perceived as another wild-eyed Northern Virginian scheme."