All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1988

Ethics and Bottle Deposits

Mr. Mayer is a surveyor living in Schuylerville. New York.

We seem to have abandoned ethics in our public lives. Bottle deposit laws, which in many parts of the country require mandatory deposits and mandatory payment for returned bottles, are a good example.

I shop in my home town at Sulli’s Supermarket. Actually it’s not too super, as supermarkets go, but it’s convenient and reasonably pleasant. I don’t recall ever having been pressured to buy something I didn’t want, and certainly Joe Sulli has never threatened to call the police if I didn’t purchase a particular item.

Yet, under our state’s bottle deposit legislation, I am in a position to do just that to him—threaten sanctions if he doesn’t buy from me the bottles I offer at five cents apiece. That I can’t do.

It is said that this is merely the refund of a deposit made at the time of purchase, or that it helps improve the environment. Both arguments fail.

The bottle is mine, to do with as I wish (calling the five cents a “deposit” doesn’t change that). I may use the bottle at home for a flower vase, bust it up, give it to a friend, or sell it. So when I tender it to Mr. Sulli for a “refund” I am really asking him, under state coercion, to buy something he may not want. That is unfair.

So far as littering is concerned, that’s my problem, not his. Yes, I may toss out the bottle along the street; but that’s a fault of mine, not the grocer’s.

And if we look more closely we see that littering is mostly a problem with “public” lands, not property which is privately owned. Most people don’t throw empties onto their own lawns; for those who do, let them live that way. Nor is it much of a problem in such places as shopping malls, churches, theaters, and social clubs. It usually isn’t done there; if it is, the owner cares enough to police it.

Littering is a problem only on such government-controlled lands as highways, parks, and schools. And that is because we have lost respect. The public doesn’t care about common lands anymore and state officials don’t care enough to pick up litter on their own.

We also hear that the beverage industry realizes a windfall from unclaimed deposits. This may be true, but that’s not the issue.

The problem is not with the merchant, and it is not between the merchant and me. Rather, it is between us and the state which requires the merchant and me to do what neither of us wants—otherwise there would be no need to coerce both “deposit” and “refund.”

And it is an ethical problem, a question of what is fair and honest. The merchant may not represent my ideal of virtue; indeed I may feel it a tip-off when he tacks on the extra five cents to the price. Still, it was not his idea to begin with. Should I thus do the same to him just because I have the chance? Should I demean myself to the point of calling the cops if Mr. Sulli doesn’t buy back from me the bottle he doesn’t want? After all, he was thoughtful enough to make available the refreshment I sought in the first place.

No, in my case I have a choice; and I should consider what is fair.

The five-cent bottle deposit may not rank with abortion or terrorism as an ethical issue. Still, it is a matter of ethics and as such is important. Are we to say that some wrongs are less wrong than others? Or that we should only do what we see as tight in larger matters? Or that for a nickel I’ll do what is rather uncivil? Will we draw the line on harder issues or larger amounts if we won’t in the case of five cents?

I think not.