The nation's capital is a beautiful city, but everywhere you look is litter -- especially old, crumpled newspapers. A lot of the hundreds of thousands of Washington Posts that leave the printing plant every morning seem to end up strewn about the city's streets. Since general admonitions about tossing one's Post into a trash basket have not worked, perhaps we should take more drastic action: a newspaper bill.
The city could put a dime ''return'' charge on every Post -- and 20 cents on Sunday editions. Incomplete papers would be worth, say, a nickel. What better way could there be to clean up the nation's capital?
Undoubtedly The Post would object. A newspaper bill would, of course, be expensive; the company's costs would rise, and its sales would fall. Such a measure would be unwieldy and difficult to enforce. A vigorous paper gestapo would be necessary to ensure that newstands accepted returns. The whole thing would seem somehow unfair. After all, it is thoughtless readers, not the paper's owners, who are really at fault.
Yet The Post happily promotes the bottle bill, which would have exactly the same expensive and unfair effects on drink manufacturers, liquor stores and grocers.
Oregon led the bottle bill parade in 1982 and eight other states subsequently adopted similar measures. And now some District residents want to establish a bottle police in the nation's capital. But the measure should be defeated, for bottle bills, even if springing from the purest of motives, are neither cost-effective nor fair.
The first problem is the expense. Shuttling millions of empty bottles back and forth would cost more than reusing the empty bottles is worth. Naturally, prices would rise as retailers, bottlers and producers all tried to pass along their increased costs.
In this way, the bottle bill would be a multimillion-dollar tax on city residents. The burden would fall most heavily on lower-income people. Economists Martin and Kathleen Feldstein, for instance, figured the cost of a proposed Massachusetts bottle bill to be about $75 annually for an average family. The only reason that bottle bills have succeeded anywhere -- 41 states have defeated such proposals -- is that their financial impact is so diffuse. Voters pay a little bit more every time they buy something to drink rather than feeling the full cost at once.
Consumers may also pay more as the industry becomes less competitive. Bottle bills, like most government regulations, harm smaller retailers -- those operating closest to the margin -- the most. Corner groceries and specialty stores would be least able to set aside scarce shelf space for empties and to hire the extra workers necessary to comply with the law. Some of these firms might be forced out of business.
In any case, consumers would find fewer products to choose from. Neighborhood stores would no longer carry special brands that a small minority of people like; several rare imported beers disappeared altogether in New York after that state passed a bottle bill.
Some consumers will be less inconvenienced than others, of course. Many District residents, especially those who live close to Maryland and Virginia, would simply stock up in those no-bottle-bill jurisdictions. The initiative would become a virtual dead letter -- unless the District deployed most of its police force to detect Pepsi smugglers.
In any case, for all their expense, bottle bills are surprisingly ineffective. Many residents don't let a five-cent deposit deter them from littering. Moreover, the bottle bill does nothing to curb other sorts of trash -- like discarded newspapers. Yet less than 6 percent of solid waste consists of beverage cans and bottles.
For instance, Oregon, the bottle bill leader, found that roadside garbage fell only 10.6 percent after passage of its bill. Michigan's measure did reduce bottle litter, but all other forms of trash increased by 37 percent the following year. Total waste rose in Maine after a bottle bill became law. Consumers end up spending a lot more money on their drinks and wasting a lot more time looking for their favorite brands, while their streets look just about as dirty as before.
Finally, bottle bills simply aren't fair: they penalize the wrong people. Of course, it is hard to catch people who are determined to leave their trash behind them. But a problem in enforcing the law against the guilty doesn't justify punishing the innocent. If a new government program is deemed necessary, it would be better to follow the lead of states like Washington, which have adopted comprehensive measures combining education, enforcement and clean-up, financed by a small tax on all waste products.
Discarded bottles on the city's street are ugly. But so are abandoned newspapers, mayonnaise jars and cans. A bottle bill wouldn't solve the trash problem, let alone do so at a reasonable cost. In this case, at least, the proposed solution is worse than the problem. -- Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.