SACRAMENTO — Heavily lobbied anti-litter legislation that would require a refundable 1-cent deposit on beer and soda containers cleared a key Senate committee Wednesday when it was amended to pull in stronger support from environmental groups.
The delicately balanced compromise passed out of the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee on an 8-0 vote, moving the measure a step closer to enactment, although it still appears to face an uphill fight.
The author, Assemblyman Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles), called the committee vote "a major breakthrough" for the legislation on beverage containers, which have been the subject of a running 20-year battle between environmentalists on one side and beer and soft-drink bottlers and retailers on the other.
When the Assembly-approved bill came before the committee last week, it encountered opposition that threatened to kill it. As a result, Margolin introduced three amendments to make it more acceptable to environmental organizations.
Margolin said that even with support for his amendments, the bill still faces an uphill fight. Brought aboard by his amendments were the Sierra Club and an organization representing recyclers.
At one point during Wednesday's hearing, the bill's approval was threatened when the Wine Institute, an industry lobbying group, attempted to amend into it a provision that would have prohibited local governments from passing ordinances placing deposits on wine cooler bottles.
Currently, wine cooler bottles would be exempted by the legislation, which would cover only beer and non-alcoholic carbonated beverages. Senate Minority Leader James W. Nielsen of Woodland proposed the Wine Institute's amendment, which drew immediate opposition from beer interests who said they would withdraw their support for the bill if the amendment was approved. The proposed amendment deadlocked on a 3-3 vote.
Environmentalists view hefty deposits as the only incentive strong enough to encourage consumers to return bottles and cans to stores, rather than tossing them out as litter.
For years, lobbyists representing beer and soft-drink companies, as well as grocers and other retailers, successfully thwarted such legislation. Beverage companies argued that the deposit of 30 cents a six-pack would increase the cost of the product. Grocers argued that processing empty bottles and cans would be costly and troublesome.
Margolin's compromise would establish a mandatory 1-cent deposit, which industry interests consider much more palatable than 5 cents. It also would set up a system of incentives that could earn consumers 2 cents or more for returning bottles and cans to recycling centers.
Because a penny per container was not considered enough of an incentive, Margolin amended the bill to provide a sliding scale that would increase deposits up to 3 cents on a bottle or can. The deposits would go up first to 2 cents if it was determined that a penny was not enough to effectively deal with the litter problem and to 3 cents by 1991 if the 2-cent rate did not work.
Another amendment sought by environmental groups would require retailers to post signs listing the hours of recycling centers near the merchant's place of business.
The third amendment deleted a provision that would have established a beverage container recycling commission, a feature likely to be opposed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who has fought the creation of new state agencies. The bill would now establish an eight-member advisory committee and require the act to be administered by the Department of Conservation.