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July 14, 2008

Bangor Daily News

30-year-old bottle law part of state ethic

AUGUSTA, Maine - Thirty years ago this summer, Mainers started to pay deposits on beverage containers and began what has become a tradition of recycling those containers instead of throwing them into the trash.

"Before the bottle law was passed, we had bottles and cans all over the place," said Pete Didishiem of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "It has now become so much a part of our ethic, when Mainers go to other states where they do not have this kind of law, it just doesn’t make sense to us."

That has not always been true. Lawmakers in 1976 were so heavily lobbied, the legislation moved forward only after an amendment was added to send the issue to the voters at referendum. It was opposed by bottlers and distributors that mounted a major media campaign against the measure, but voters passed it 58 percent to 42 percent.

The same group of bottlers and distributors tried again in 1978 to defeat the measure by using the petition process to force another referendum. Even after another major advertising campaign, voters supported the law by one of the widest margins in state history, with 84 percent in favor and 16 percent opposed.

"People saw it was working," Didishiem said. "Roadside trash was down 75 to 80 percent. It has had broad public support since then."

One group that opposed the legislation 30 years ago was the Maine Beverage Association, which represents many bottlers and distributors in the state. Director Newell Augur agrees that the law has broad support today.

"Our members look on it as a cost of doing business," he said. "People expect now to recycle their containers, but we are only a small part, about 5 percent, of the entire waste stream."

The law was expanded in 1990 to include liquor and wine bottles, bottled water, fruit juices and bottled tea. In 2003 the law was changed to cover all beverage containers, except dairy products and unprocessed cider. The deposit is 5 cents per container, except liquor and wine bottles that require a 15 cent deposit.

The latest changes have sparked some controversy. The Department of Agriculture, charged with overseeing the law, was asked by the Legislature to review whether the law is catching all the containers it is supposed to be diverting from landfills. In a report to the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee earlier this year, the department stated it could not answer the question after trying to obtain information from bottlers and distributors.

"The majority of the industry’s participation in responding to the survey questions was insufficient to reach any reliable conclusions. Many responses lacked sufficient data and there was no means to verify the data that was reported," the study stated. "The Department is unable to make any recommendation based on the findings of this report."

Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-South Portland, co-chair of the panel, said the lack of cooperation by the industry was troubling and she believes the Legislature should consider fundamentally changing the law and requiring the data it needs from the industry.

Bromley said the "bottom line" issue is who gets the unredeemed deposits and that current law allows distributors to keep those funds if the containers are part of a "commingling agreement" where, for example, both Coke and Pepsi cans are collected together instead of stores and redemption centers separating them by brand.

Auger estimated that those that did fill out the Agriculture Department survey account for "85 to 90 percent" of the containers in the state, and that most companies have complied with the law. He said by allowing commingling agreements, lawmakers recognized there are costs to implementing the deposit law and the cost of beverages would be higher if companies did not keep the unredeemed deposits.

"I think we may have made a mistake with some of the changes we made, and we should look at the Massachusetts model," Bromley said, "and get the distributors out of this whole process. These unredeemed deposits belong to the people and not the bottle companies. "

Bromley said that with Agriculture Department audits indicating more containers are not being registered with the state and an overall increase in the number of containers, the value of the unredeemed deposits is in the millions of dollars. Maine Revenue Services received $1.2 million in unredeemed deposits in 2006.

Randy Trahan, the department inspector assigned to enforcing the bottle law, said distributors are now being audited to make sure all the containers they are distributing have been registered with the state. He said that in an audit this spring, one large distributor in southern Maine had 30 percent of their containers unregistered.

"The biggest problem seems to be with wine bottles," he said. "We are working to educate people about the need to register with us."

Trahan believes earlier estimates of how many containers are being sold in Maine are too low. He believes the total will top 1 billion containers this year.

Rep. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, the ranking GOP member of the committee, shares Bromley’s concern about the audit findings.

"I think we need to do a better job gathering data to make sure the information we have is accurate," he said.

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