By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Only 10 states have bottle bills, including four of the six New England states — Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — but there is mounting pressure to repeal these decades-old initiatives.
During the past year in both Maine and Vermont, the beverage industry has led an effort to repeal those states’ bottle bills. To the south, Delaware recently dumped its nearly 30-decade-old bottle bill in favor of what is essentially a 4-cent tax.
In Rhode Island, campaigns have been conducted and bills written to bring a bottle bill to the Ocean State, but such a move has been deemed economically unsustainable.
Two years ago, the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), which runs the Central Landfill in Johnston, hired a Vermont-based consulting firm to conduct a study on the cost/environmental effectiveness of a bottle bill. The firm determined that an enhanced municipal recycling program, which the RIRRC has since begun to implement and includes a planned shift to single-stream recycling in 2012, is a more efficient system since consumers aren’t required to drive to separate redemption centers to recycle their beverage containers.
During this debate, the Coke- and Pepsi-backed American Beverage Association, an advocacy group representing the nonalcoholic beverage industry, said such an initiative would be inadequately financed. The Rhode Island Food Dealers Association said local supermarkets were concerned about the financial obligations associated with hosting redemption machines that would take up valuable space and pose a safety issue by attracting bees.
“RIRRC is confident in the results of the study which clearly supports making major and specific improvements to our existing curbside program as the most effective way to increase recycling,” Michael OConnell, executive director of the RIRRC, wrote in a letter dated July 8, 2009 to Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed. “This alternative system was seen as far superior to an enhanced bottle bill because it diverted almost twice the amount of new recyclables for about one third the cost of the bottle deposit program.”
The New England Grassroots Education Fund, however, believes bottle bills are a proven, sustainable method of capturing beverage bottles and cans for recycling. The refund value of the container provides a monetary incentive to return the container for recycling, according to the Vermont-based nonprofit.
Mandatory curbside recycling is being touted as a possible solution along with the demise of bottle deposit programs, but one effort shouldn't prelude the other and recycling rates could be greatly improved using both approaches, according to New England Grassroots Education Fund officials.
According to a 1999 report by the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit that studies and promotes policies and programs that increase recovery and recycling of beverage containers, states with redemption laws recycled 491 containers per person and residents of states that didn’t have a bottle bill recycled an average of 191 containers.
As more beverage containers are targeted for inclusion in existing bottle bills — Gov. Deval Patrick, for example, has proposed expanding Massachusetts’ deposit system to include bottles of water, sports drinks, juices and other non-carbonated beverages that have proliferated since the state’s bottle bill was passed in 1982 — juice, sports drink and bottled water manufacturers have joined beverage container manufacturers, soft drink bottlers, beer, wine and liquor distributors, and retail grocers in the anti-bottle bill movement.
In fact, during the past 20 years, a lot of money has been spent to defeat bottle bill ballot initiatives, with industry opponents outspending proponents by as much as 30 to 1, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The beverage industry spent about $14 million in campaign contributions aimed at defeating the National Bottle Bill between 1989 and 1994 and members of a Senate Committee who voted against the National Bottle Bill in 1992 received an average of 75 times more in anti-bottle bill PAC money than those who voted in favor of the bill, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based group.
Another group of bottle bill opponents also has emerged in recent years — waste haulers and owners of materials recovery facilities who want the revenue from the valuable aluminum cans that are recovered through bottle bills.
In Maine, where a bottle bill was passed in 1976 with overwhelming voter support, the state’s new governor, Paul LePage, has led a charge against the popular law. In fact, the Natural Resources Council of Maine says the governor’s Phase I Regulatory Reform Proposals are just a “slew of anti-environmental policy changes.”
Besides repealing Maine’s bottle bill, the proposed reforms would have eliminated the state’s energy efficiency building codes, weakened zoning laws that protect lakes, rivers and coastal waters, weakened the state’s pesticide notification system and weakened laws that protect significant wildlife habitat, sand dunes and vernal pools, according to the nonprofit organization.
Earlier this year, Republican state Sen. Tom Martin introduced a bill calling for the repeal of Maine’s bottle bill. Republican Rep. Kerri Prescott proposed a bill to “create consistency and fairness in Maine’s bottle bill.” Republican Sen. David Hastings introduced a bill suggesting the state’s bottle bill could be replaced with a more effective system.
Supporters, however, claimed Maine’s bottle bill is responsible for the approximately 90 percent recycling rate of beverage containers in the state. They said the current bottle bill reduces roadside trash and lessens the amount of waste buried in landfills.
The legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee — made up of eight Republicans and five Democrats — voted unanimously May 2 to keep the Pine Tree State bottle bill in place. Committee members were united in opposition to weakening what is widely seen as a model beverage container redemption law, according to a recent story in The Free Press.
Martin’s bill attempting to overturn bottle bill was withdrawn before it came up for consideration and other bills that would have weakened the law failed in committee, such as a bill that would have exempted wine bottles from the deposit system.
This recent effort to banish Maine’s bottle bill isn’t the first time such an attempt has been made. Three years after the law went into effect, a referendum pushed by corporate beverage interests failed by 85 percent.
Is two better than one?
In Vermont, legislation was introduced last year to repeal the bottle bill and replace it with mandatory recycling. Mandatory recycling, however, wouldn’t target containers consumed away from home or give any financial incentive to recycle or pick up roadside trash, according to the New England Grassroots Education Fund.
Vermont currently recycles 85 percent of all beverage containers covered by its bottle bill, according to education fund representatives, while states without a bottle bill recycle, on average, less than 25 percent of these same containers. A recent poll noted that 90 percent of Vermont voters support the current bottle bill and 85 percent want to see it updated, according to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
The state’s bottle bill was enacted in 1972 and covers beer, soda, liquor and mixed wine drinks in metal, glass, plastic or paper containers.
The law also gives Vermont residents the option of recycling their beverage containers by placing them in curbside bins. The combination of these recycling methods has proven successful, according to bottle bill supporters. At 85 percent, Vermont’s beverage container recycling rate is among the highest in the nation.
Two bills, however, were introduced last year that would have repealed Vermont’s bottle bill. One house bill would have replaced it with an extended producer responsibility requirement. According to the Campaign for Recycling, the state’s current bottle bill already has extended producer responsibility requirements in place that are superior to those proposed in that bill.
The proposed legislation would have required producers of packaging and printed material, including beverage containers, to develop plans for recovering these materials and financing the program through fees. Within a year of the time the program was approved, the bill required municipalities and solid waste districts to implement mandatory recycling requirements and “pay-as-you-throw” pricing for household waste collection and disposal.
Supporters of the state’s current bottle bill said if the bill had passed the result would likely have been a recycling system that would only involve curbside collection. While curbside recycling works well now in conjunction with the bottle bill, a curbside recycling program by itself is problematic, according to the Campaign for Recycling, because it wouldn’t target containers consumed away from home and would thus result in lower recycling rates.
A study released in 2002 found that states that used a deposit system in conjunction with another means to recycle beverage containers, such as curbside recycling, enjoyed a recycling rate of more than two and a half times greater than in states without a deposit system.
Another House bill would have replaced the bottle bill with a flat fee on beverage containers. In place of the current 5-cent or 15-cent deposit on beverage containers, the bill would have imposed a half-cent fee on all beverage containers. The half-cent fee would have lasted for the first year and then would have been replaced by a quarter-cent fee for the second year, which would then would have been replaced by an eighth-cent fee for the third year.
The fees would be deposited into the Waste Management Assistance Fund for the purpose of funding a “recycling and reuse assistance account” that would provide for the collection and recycling of beverage containers by solid waste districts.
Supporters of the status quo said this bill failed to hold manufacturers accountable for the products they put into the marketplace, would have reduced recycling rates and hindered the ability to reuse the containers that are recycled.
Both bills died in committee.
Bottle bill recycled
While efforts to repeal the bottle bill in both Maine and Vermont were unsuccessful, Delaware last year repealed its 28-year-old law that required a 5-cent deposit on plastic and glass soft drink and beer bottles and replaced it with a 4-cent non-refundable recycling fee.
States with bottle deposit bills regularly boost bottle recycling rates that exceed 70 percent, according to the Campaign for Recycling. Delaware officials, however, testified during last year’s bottle bill debate that the state’s bottle recycling rate was only 12 percent because many retailers refused to accept returned bottles.
The new 4-cent per container recycling fee, which went into effect in December, is designed to provide start-up money to help waste haulers start single-stream curbside recycling.
The new law mandates that all municipal and private waste haulers provide such curbside recycling pickup for single-family homes starting Sept. 15, for multifamily residences starting Jan. 1, 2013 and for commercial sites by 2014. The 4-cent fee is scheduled to end Dec. 1, 2014 or after $22 million is raised.
The Delaware bill, according to opponents of the new law, places the financial responsibility of recycling on the shoulders of consumers and lessens it for beverage distributors. Delaware’s new bottle law also goes against recent trends, as a few states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, are looking at expanding their bottle bills or extending producer responsibility laws to reduce waste and advance recycling.
For decades, the beverage industry has been contending that residential curbside collection is the best solution for collecting recyclables, claiming bottle bills are incompatible with such a service.
The numbers, at least those provided by the Container Recycling Institute, don’t back that claim.
Two out of three beverage containers sold in the United States end up as litter or buried in landfills. The current 35 percent beverage container recovery rate has declined from 41 percent in 2000 and from an all-time of 54 percent in 1992.
It would seem that a combination of curbside recycling, extended producer responsibility laws and bottle bills would be the best solution for keeping beverage containers out of landfills and from bobbing in our oceans.