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September 14, 2008

Seacoast online

Maine cracks down on cross-border redemptions
Maine issues fine warning to those cashing in illegally''

Top Photo
Return deposit information is displayed on the top of most stay-tab opening aluminium cans.Rich Beauchesne photo

ELIOT, Maine — Those who shop for beverages in New Hampshire and return the empties in Maine could soon face a hefty fine, state officials say.

Two weeks ago, signs went up at the Eliot transfer station reminding residents that it is illegal to return containers bought in New Hampshire since that state doesn't have a bottle bill. Eliot's transfer station returns bottles and cans for the deposit, rather than being sold as a bulk commodity. This means residents must follow the law when dropping off their recyclables.

"It's always been illegal to return containers that weren't originally purchased in Maine," said Hal Prince, director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulation at the Maine Department of Agriculture. "The law has been on the books for a while. However, it has never really been enforced."

This is changing now that the state is generating funds from distributor fees to enforce the law.

Maine's bottle bill was implemented in 1978, and is one of the most inclusive in the nation, requiring a 5- or 15-cent deposit on most beverage containers.

Prince said the problem is most people don't realize that the distributors initiate the deposit when they import the beverage into the state. They get repaid by the deposits charged to the consumer.

"When people recycle bottles bought in states without a bottle deposit, the returner gets a deposit back that they never paid, and the distributor loses money."

Prince referred to a report that said the value of containers illegally redeemed in the state was at least $1.2 million.

Enforcement of the law can be tough, as there is no way to tell where the container was originally purchased, because many containers bought in New Hampshire have a label saying they are worth a 5- or 15-cent deposit in Maine, creating confusion for consumers.

"We are a regulatory agency, but we try to inform and educate first," Prince said. The state is now working with local towns and redemption centers to get the word out.

Thus, the signs put up at the Eliot transfer station, and bright orange fliers distributed by the state stating the fine for illegal redemptions.

The Eliot transfer station has set up a separate area for returnables from New Hampshire.

"We're trying to do everything we can to comply with the law," said Phil Lytel, the station's manager. "Now, it's really up to the people to make sure they put it in the right areas."

Lytel said the transfer station employees try their best to sort out containers from other states, but that is impossible in some cases. He said a gentleman recently dropped off a whole container of aluminum cans, and when asked where they came from, he said, "How do I know? My wife buys it."

Lytel said there has been some confusion since the signs went up, with people thinking that the containers would be thrown out. He said residents should still bring all plastic, aluminum and glass containers to the transfer station because they will be recycled somehow.

Empty Redemption, located just down the road from the transfer station, faces similar problems.

Owner Peter Flint informs his customers, but also depends on an honor system. His customers, many of whom are regulars, bring in their containers already counted and bagged, and he returns their deposit based on their count.

The distributors then pick up the containers from his facility on Route 236.

However, people aren't always honest, Flint said. He pointed to a cardboard bin filled with more than 300 soda cans with the Market Basket label (a brand not sold in Maine), and said those had come in from customers just this week.

"It is starting to get ridiculous," he said. "I can't be losing that amount of money every week."

He does his part to educate by customers by giving them a state-made flier that lists the fine for illegally returning containers, which is hefty at $100 per container or a maximum $25,000. He said when he hands them the flier, "most people just laugh at me."

"It's a pain in the neck when people aren't honest," Flint said. "It seems to be getting worse as people are hurting more for money."

Frank Whittier, senior vice president of marketing for Clynk, a Maine-based redemption company, says they are constantly educating people on the laws regarding returnables.

"We are working diligently to discourage fraud," Whittier said. The company has a redemption center in the York Hannaford supermarket, where users can bring returnables after signing up for a Clynk account and purchasing bags for a nominal cost.

Whittier credits Clynk's account sign-up process with helping to deter fraudulent returns.

"Some people sign up with a New Hampshire address, and then we know that they're trying to defraud the state of Maine," he said.

He also said the Clynk machines can detect fraudulent returns on some containers using a secondary bar code.

Many border towns in Maine avoid the problem by selling their recyclables in bulk or having curbside pickup.

South Berwick interim Town Manager Roberta Orsini said, "We sell all of our recyclables as commodities and therefore avoid that problem. We try to get as much as we can for them."

Despite the lack of concern Flint has seen by some of his customers, Prince said the attorney general's office has charged several people already and some fines have hit the $25,000 mark.

"We are finding a lot of people are bringing them in by the truckload," he said. "If people are knowingly violating, we're going after them."


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