Let’s go back.  Who remembers the days before the returnable container law?  A little research shows that the Maine legislature passed the act to require a five-cent deposit on beverage containers in 1976.

antique glass bottles

Before that, a teenager with a .22 rifle could pass a summer afternoon walking a country road, shooting bottles in the ditch.  If we went in pairs, we might set them onto rocks and use them more practically for target practice.  Cans were a little less practical.  A .22 bullet would sometimes pierce the can without so much as disturbing its equilibrium – you had to walk right up to it to see whether it had even taken a hit.  A bottle, on the other hand, gave a satisfying explosion.

Plastic containers were still a few years off when I used to walk the roads reducing glass containers to inconspicuous fragments.  The plastic bottles you can still shoot that don’t cost you your deposit are milk containers right down to the single-serving 16-ounce size.  You don’t lose your nickel because there is no deposit.  For this reason, single-serving chocolate milk containers in Number 2 plastic can still be found in ditches.  No one wants to pick them up.  But they are unsatisfactory as targets unless you fill them first with ditch water before setting them onto rocks or fence posts.  With water in them they don’t blow down, and a hit gives you a tell-tale stream of water from the holes.  (Caution: Firearms safety dictates that you never shoot a target resting on or near a rock.  I now observe this safety rule, but in my early days of shooting I was much more confident of my marksmanship.)

Maybe I’m the reason there is a bottle law.  Maybe some state senator’s kid lacerated himself on a bottle fragment when his bicycle haplessly carried him into a ditch alongside a road in Franklin County in the 1960s.  Or maybe someone was incensed that people in cars were so insensitive then that they would drink beer after beer and chuck the bottles onto the roadside and leave them as scattered eyesores.

I can imagine someone driving along with a “roady” – typically a can or bottle of Budweiser – and sailing the empty into the air from an open car window.  (Never did it myself.)  I can picture a carload of 18-year-olds defiantly doing this back when I was 18.  (I never pitched one from a back window either.)  The drinking age in Maine was 21 from Prohibition until 1969, 20 from 1969 to 1972, 18 from 1972 to 1977, 20 from 1977 to 1985, and 21 ever since then.

I have no idea why the legislature tinkered with it so much at the time, but I remember the confusion then:

Can I have a beer?  How old are you?  Nineteen.  What’s the drinking age?  I dunno, they just passed a law.  They just passed one a couple years ago.  It went down.  No it went up,  how old are you now?  Still 19.  I think it’s 20.  I’ll be 20 when this discussion is over.  OK, have a beer.

The next time you’re in a grocery store, look closely for ME -5¢ on beverage containers.  You will find this on sodas and beer, of course.  And on wine or liquor it’s 15¢.  You will find ME -5¢ on Splash and orange juice.  On spring water and “energy” drinks.

You will even find ME -5¢ on half-gallon jugs of prune juice.

Think about it.  Back in the 1960s and early 1970s Maine wanted to discourage those casual hellions who were tossing their empty beverage containers from car windows as they cruised the countryside.  Who, pray tell, ever drank down a half gallon of prune juice, while driving, and then tossed the empty into a ditch?

The prune juice lobbyist at the state capitol must be only a part-time position.  But you can tell that the dairy lobby is well-staffed.  Milk containers are exempted from the bottle law.  Are we to conclude from this that far more hooligans guzzle prune juice while they text and drive than swill milk?

I notice, too, that the legislature of 1976 desired, in addition to the already-extant littering fine, to make the forfeit of 5¢ per container a sufficient incentive for a carload of teenagers to hold onto their bottles so when they were through drinking they would rush to the nearest returnable center and redeem the six-pack of empties for a full 30¢.  Well, 35 years ago 30¢ was worth about four times as much today.  Isn’t it about time to raise the deposit?

Bottle deposits didn’t begin in 1976, however.  Remember those upright soda dispensers with the heavy glass bottles lying on their sides so that the caps were visible through a door on the left side of the machine?  These were not just returnable bottles that were crushed and recycled, they were actually washed and re-used.  After a few refills, a six-ounce single-serving bottle would be quite roughed up and abraded.  Some were painted in two colors for the brand – Royal Crown, Moxie, 7-Up!  The paint usually stood up well through numerous refills.

The price for a bottle of pop in the 1950s?  Five cents.  You didn’t walk off the premises with your drink in those days either.  Once you had finished you six ounces of refreshment, you stood the empty in a wide, sectioned wooden crate that rested next to the vending machine.  If you were determined to take it with you, you paid the shop keeper a 2¢ deposit.  And finding an empty bottle in a ditch meant a trip to the gas station or wherever you could find the nearest vending machine, in order to collect the pennies, which still had value then.

The deposit in the olden days was not due to an act of the legislature.  It was the bottling company’s value of its bottles.  If you wanted to keep the bottle, you had to literally buy it.  And you could sell it back for the same 2¢ price.

Two cents in 1957 was worth 4¢ by 1976 (using the Consumer Price Index), so the first bottle law in Maine had it about on par at 5¢, but that 2¢ is now 16¢ today, an eight-fold increase.

That same eight-fold increase suggests that a six-ounce drink that sold for 5¢ would be worth about 40¢ today.  But you don’t find a single-serving drink of that size any longer.  It’s generally about 16 ounces (ranging from 12 to 20), and 16 ounces should go for about $1.07 today.

In 1957 the legislature of most states had not thought of taxing a nickel Coke.  Now the Maine tax on your buck-and-a-half soda is seven percent, which adds about a dime to the price.  (You could have bought two Cokes 55 years ago for just the tax on a soda today — that’s if our money would hold still…)

I just happened to think of all this when I was picking up 23 beer cans all in one spot alongside the Golden Road last week.  I’ll get $1.15 for them when I turn them in, but I was more interested in cleaning up the roadside.  I guide in that area, and I’m a little sensitive to what visitors see.  And I thought: If the deposit on these cans were 20¢ apiece now, about even with the change in the cost of everything else compared to 1976, then someone ditching a suitcase of empties would be forfeiting close to five dollars.

I had to have some fun, though.  So earlier this week, I bought a giant bottle of prune juice.  You might have seen me driving around Lincoln on Monday and Tuesday, window rolled down, slowly slurping from that half-gallon bottle.  I held it so the label could easily be visible: Del Monte Prune Juice.  It took me two days to drink it, but fortunately I like the taste of that stuff.

And when I finished it, I drove down one of the roads leading out of town, (I’m not saying which road), and when I was sure no one was looking — I CHUCKED THAT BOTTLE OUT THE WINDOW!

There!  There has been a stupid 5¢ deposit on prune juice bottles since the law of 1976, and I may be the first person who EVER committed the act with a prune juice bottle.

And therein lies my message in a bottle: I think certain drinks in certain sizes should be exempt from the deposit, or else milk should cease to be exempted, and I think the bottle deposit should be raised to 20¢ or even 25¢ to keep up with the ever-continuing erosion of the dollar.

=DAVID A. WOODBURY= 14 June 2012