February 12, 2009

The New York Times

Nickel by Nickel, Adding Up

When the deposit program was started in Connecticut, about 30 years ago, residential garbage recycling programs were rare.

FOR about 10 minutes, Donna DiMotta stood in a chilly side room at her local supermarket one recent weekday afternoon, feeding bottles and cans into a large, noisy vending machine.

In exchange for returning 40 containers marked with a tiny message that read 5-cent deposit, Mrs. DiMotta collected a ticket from the redemption machine and brought it to a store clerk who handed her two dollars.

“It’s not my favorite thing to do,” said Mrs. DiMotta, 57, a telephone operator, about her twice-a-month chore, “but I understand the need for it.”

It has been almost 30 years since the deposit program was started in Connecticut to reduce litter and help persuade residents to recycle their bottles and cans at a time when most towns and cities did not have residential garbage recycling programs.

Now, Connecticut, New York and nine other states have container deposit programs. Environmentalists say that in these states, 66 percent of the containers with the deposits — mostly soft drink and beer cans and bottles — are returned, compared to 40 percent or less of those containers with no deposits, like water bottles.

Supermarkets and other retailers pay beverage distributors an amount equal to the deposits when they buy the beverages from them. The retailers then pass on that cost to consumers, like Mrs. DiMotta, who can get their deposits back when they bring the bottles back to a redeeming center.

But every year, about $25 million in deposit money goes unclaimed, and the question of who gets to keep that money — and whether the bottle deposit program should be expanded — has emerged as a contentious political issue in Connecticut this legislative session as lawmakers wrestle with a huge state budget deficit. Bottle distributors had been keeping the money from unclaimed deposits, an arrangement they have lobbied hard to protect. But in November, faced with mounting budget woes, lawmakers ordered all unclaimed deposits put into an escrow account, and last month the legislators voted to seize that money for the state as of April 1.

Now Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed expanding the 5-cent deposit requirement to include water bottles, which do not currently carry a deposit. An estimated 580 million water bottles are sold in Connecticut each year, and requiring a deposit on them could increase the state’s income from unclaimed deposits by about $13 million a year, according to he governor’s office. Republicans and Democrats say money from unredeemed bottle and can deposits, if water bottles are included, could bring the state total to $38 million a year.

Mrs. Rell’s plan would also account for consumers who place their deposit containers directly in curbside recycling bins. Municipalities would then be able to sort out the redeemable bottles and cans and receive a share of the unclaimed deposit money to help cover recycling costs.

Currently, cities and towns do not receive any money for deposit containers in their trash collections because there is no system for municipalities with curbside programs to sort out and get money for redeemable containers, according to Betty McLaughlin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, an environmental advocacy group.

Other legislative proposals would put deposits on virtually all plastic or aluminum noncarbonated beverage containers or increase the deposit to 10 cents.

Connecticut has debated for years about whether other recycling ideas would be more effective.

The original sponsor of the state’s first “Bottle Bill,” former State Senator George L. Gunther of Stratford, now 89, said the measure was billed as an antilitter program. Mr. Gunther, known as Doc, remembers that it took eight years to gain approval.

But throughout the years, opponents of the program said there was no need for the deposit system when many cities and towns began requiring residents to place those same bottles in recycling bins picked up by garbage workers — which means some consumers did not bother to take them to a redeeming center to collect the 5 cents.

James A. Amann of Milford, who just retired as speaker of the State House of Representatives to explore a run for governor, was one of those opponents.

During his years as speaker, Mr. Amann, a Democrat, often said his wife hated the idea of deposits on water bottles because they always recycled them anyway.

But Ms. McLaughlin and other environmental advocates said deposit programs have been enormously successful. She said that in Michigan, the only state with a 10-cent deposit, 96 percent of the eligible containers are recycled.

In Connecticut, consumers can take their empties back to a store or one of a handful of independent redemption centers to get their deposits back. Big supermarkets usually have a separate room with machines that accept bar-coded containers and give consumers a receipt, which they can cash inside.

Beverage distributors pick up the returned bottles and cans, paying retailers handling fees of 1.5 cents for each beer container and 2 cents per soda can or bottle. The distributors then sell the recyclable materials.

Until last month, distributors in Connecticut had been allowed to keep the deposit money from cans and bottles that consumers failed to redeem. Distributors said they needed the revenue from the unredeemed deposits to cover handling fees and the rising costs of collection and transportation of cans and bottles. They spent millions of dollars over the past 17 years successfully lobbying against state efforts to claim that money.

“Our concern has always been primarily to recoup the costs of our administrative requirements,” said Jay F. Malcynsky, a lobbyist for the Pepsi Bottling Group.

NEARLY everyone agrees that a major expansion of the deposit system is probable this year because of Connecticut’s continuing fiscal crisis — and a change in legislative leadership, with Mr. Amann, one of the main opponents of the deposit system, now gone from the Assembly.

His successor as the highest-ranking House leader, Christopher G. Donovan, Democrat of Meriden, is far more supportive of expanding the deposit system. So is the Senate’s top Democrat, Donald E. Williams Jr. of Brooklyn.

And the state is staring at a $1.1 billion deficit for the current fiscal year and even more frightening projected budget gaps over the next 24 months.

But there are plenty of opponents to expanding the deposit program. Supermarket owners warn that extending deposits to cover water and other beverages could overwhelm stores, raising costs by forcing investment in larger recycling areas. They also warn that more containers would increase potential food contamination hazards.

“Once you get beyond the current system, you’re really turning a supermarket into a garbage dump,” said Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association. He said the best solution would be to have curbside recycling for all types of containers, and bypass supermarkets and other retailers altogether.

The largest producer of bottled water in the nation is Nestlé Waters North America, with headquarters in Greenwich. Brian J. Flaherty, director of public affairs, said Nestlé is now committed to achieving a 60 percent recycling rate for its containers by 2018.

But Nestlé officials favor the proposal that would enable cities and towns to receive a share of the deposit revenue, Mr. Flaherty said. California has such a system, he said, which encourages towns and cities to set up their own curbside recycling.

Other lawmakers are opposed to expanding the deposit to other beverages, like water, because it means consumers will spend more for such products upfront.

State Representative Pamela Z. Sawyer, Republican of Bolton, said children’s sports teams in her small town always buy a 30-pack of bottled water to take to games. Another 5 cents a bottle would add $1.50 to their out-of-pocket costs.

“To me, that’s a very significant change of public policy,” Ms. Sawyer said. “This is water we’re talking about here.”

The co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee, State Representative Richard Roy, Democrat of Milford, said the ultimate goal was to increase recycling to reduce the need to dispose of hundreds of millions of plastic containers.

“We don’t feel bottle deposits and single-source recycling are competitive. We feel they’re complementary,” he said. “We want to use both programs to recycle as much as we can.”


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