April 9, 2008
Message in a bottle
Proponents cite Maine's successful redemption law as a lesson for Mass.
By David Abel
YORK, Maine - As lawmakers in Massachusetts debate whether to expand the Commonwealth's 27-year-old bottle law to allow residents to redeem bottled water and other noncarbonated drinks - which now account for about one-third of beverage containers sold in the state - proponents of a new bill cite Maine's approach as a way to boost recycling rates.
They say a new redemption method, such as the one at Hannaford supermarket in York, could placate grocers who have long complained of the stench and unseemly lines, beverage companies that have grumbled about the costs, and lawmakers who have griped about fraud, such as when people bring in bottles from states that lack bottle laws.
On a recent afternoon at Hannaford, Steven Swasey handed a bag full of empty containers of beer, water, and soda to the manager, who used a scanner to read an attached bar code. Then Swasey went to a nearby electronic kiosk, punched in his personal identification number, and got a receipt that indicated that after three months of recycling he had earned $148. He never had to deal with clunky machinery or touch leaky bottles.
"In the old way, it would take an hour to do one or two bags; now I just hand the bag over, and the money appears in my account," said Swasey, 45, who used the money to shop at the supermarket.
Maine is one of only three states in the country that allow residents to redeem bottles of noncarbonated beverages, including water, juice, and wine. About 93 percent of the 1 billion containers sold every year are redeemed, according to the state's Department of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Resources. In Massachusetts, where only carbonated beverages such as soda and beer can be redeemed, redemption rates have steadily declined, and less than 66 percent of containers in the state are redeemed, according to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
The efforts to increase recycling rates in Massachusetts come as sales of bottled water are rising sharply. Between 2002 and 2005, Americans more than doubled the amount of bottled water they drank, from 13 billion bottles to 29.8 billion, according to the Washington-based Container Recycling Institute. The institute estimated in 2005 that 144 billion containers, more than one-third of them plastic bottles, ended up in incinerators, landfills, or as litter.
"What's great about Maine's law is that it covers all beverages consumed away from home, beverages consumed on the go, like those people drink while having lunch," said Phillip Sego, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Sierra Club. "The vast majority of those cans are going into the trash. There's very little impetus to carry a bottle home to put it in the curbside. That's why the Maine law makes so much sense."
Officials who oversee the bottle law in Maine say cross-border sales of noncarbonated beverages and other forms of fraud are a negligible factor, accounting for about 5 percent of all bottles redeemed. They say the state has passed laws and taken other action to tighten controls on the sale and redemption of bottles to limit fraud. And they say the state has done its job by making container recycling nearly universal and sharply reducing litter.
"Just take a look at our roadsides, how much gets pulled out of the waste stream and gets recycled," said Hal Prince, director of Maine's Division of Quality Assurance and Regulation at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources, which oversees the bottle law. "What you'll see is that the system works."
Prince and others say the new redemption method on display at the Hannaford in York, the work of a two-year-old company called Clynk, has helped bridge divides between opponents and proponents of the law.
"I think it's been a great solution so far," Prince said.
In late 2006, Clynk opened its first center beside a Hannaford supermarket in Scarborough. Clynk, which has since grown to 14 locations and plans to have 30 centers by the end of the year, is considering expanding to other states, including Massachusetts.
Clynk's method works like this: People who want to redeem their bottles provide the company their names, addresses, and phone numbers - to prove they are residents and prevent fraud. The registered users receive large plastic bags, bar code stickers, and key chain cards to swipe at the kiosk to get their money. All they have to do is drop off their bags, and Clynk hauls them to a processing facility, where scanners read the bar codes on the bottles - another check against fraud - and post the money to users' accounts within 24 hours.
Those without permanent addresses can use a homeless shelter, a friend's home, or an advocacy organization.
Dispute about the amounts of the returns are worked out on a case-by-case basis with the manager of the store.
What distinguishes Clynk from other redemption facilities around the state is that it does not use reverse vending machines, the loud, refrigerator-sized contraptions that process bottles one by one. Working with Hannaford, a longtime opponent of the bottle law, Clynk officials say they have registered about 32,000 users.
"We're trying to address all the status quo arguments that have been used for 30 years against the bottle law," said Frank Whittier, a spokesman for Clynk, which earns money from a contract with Hannaford and about 3 cents in handling fees per bottle. "We are addressing all the complaints - from consumers frustrated because it isn't easy to recycle, distributors who want fairness in the system, and supermarkets that don't want long lines in front of their stores."
Clynk has allied itself with companies such as Nestlé Waters North America Inc., which opposes Maine's bottle law but has found that working with Clynk solves its concerns about fraud. Nestlé, which produces Poland Springs, said it lost $80 million to redemption fraud in 2006.
"It's an appealing program and makes the system in Maine more consumer friendly," said Brian Flaherty, a spokesman for Nestlé, which continues to oppose bottle laws. "Clynk is helpful, and they have clean facilities. They've got something going there."
Skeptics of Clynk's approach question whether enough people will give their names and addresses, whether they will want to relinquish counting their bottles, and whether the sorting machines provide companies with an accurate accounting.
Newell Augur, director of Maine Beverage Association, said the state would be better off with a comprehensive recycling approach that would include other forms of waste. But only about 40 percent of Maine's residents have access to curbside recycling, and he said Clynk's approach has assuaged some concerns.
"They certainly have an interesting model," Augur said. "It goes a long way to addressing fraud issues. And to the extent that people are using their redemption for credit at the supermarket is a good thing."
At the Hannaford in York, where more than 100 users last month brought in bottles to the brightly lit Clynk, a supermarket manager said he was happy he no longer had to spend hours every week dealing with "the fraternity house" smells, the constantly breaking machines, the long lines of people carrying leaky bags.
Now, the old bottle room in the front of the store provides valuable retail space, and the store welcomes the business of Clynk clients such as Swasey, who often go shopping after cashing in.
"Clynk is not a profit center for Hannafords, but it's incredibly convenient for our customers," said Caren Epstein, a spokeswoman for Hannaford. "We see it as a model to take the issue out of the hands of the retailer and let the retailer focus on its core business."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.