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March 24, 2010

Journal Tribune

Bottle handling fees increase
Half penny per bottle expected to help struggling redemption centers

Diana McKee, co-owner of Biddeford Bottle and Can, holds a water bottle at the Alfred Street redemption center on Tuesday. (JEFF LAGASSE/Journal Tribune)

BIDDEFORD —  It’s been at least 12 years in the making, but as of March 1, redemption centers have seen a half penny increase in the handling fee for each bottle or can purchased in Maine.

The last increase was 21 years ago.

With this increase, redemption centers make 3.5 to 4 cents for most beverage containers – more for liquor and wine containers.

Bottle and can redemption centers were set up after Maine’s bottle bill was passed in 1978 as a result of a citizen-initiated referendum.

The goal of the bill was to take the bottles and cans out of the waste stream and clean up the roadsides, said Hal Prince with the Maine Department of Agriculture, the department that oversees the implementation of the state’s bottle bill.

Consumers pay a 5 cent deposit when buying a canned or bottled beverage, which they can later redeem and get their deposit back.

Under Maine statute, it’s up to the state legislature to set the handling rate that redemption centers earn for taking in those bottles and cans.

Fees are used to cover the cost for taking the containers from consumers and then sorting and bagging the cans and bottles before distributors pick them up to be recycled and/or disposed.

This increase means a lot to Diana McKee and John Marcotte, the husband and wife team who own Biddeford Bottle and Can Redemption Center on Alfred Street. Seventeen years ago, the couple took over the business that was started by Marcotte’s parents.

Because the state sets the rate, there’s no way for owners of stand-alone redemption centers, like McKee and Marcotte, to recoup their costs when prices go up.

In order to stay afloat, the couple had to let some of their workforce go and they took out a home equity loan.

According to McKee, the increase means the couple can start paying back their loan. However, she said, it’s doubtful they’ll be able to add any additional staff.

Some redemption centers weren’t able to survive, said McKee.

Ed Madden, the owner of Madden Beverage in Saco, started Madden Redemption Center in 2000. He said he sold the redemption center in 2006 because “it was too expensive to run.”

In the six years he ran his business, said Madden, the price of bags for sorted containers at least doubled, and payroll costs climbed. Although he was busy, “more volume didn’t equate with increased revenue,” he said.

It’s unclear how many redemption centers have closed, said Prince.

A change in the law now requires that in addition to stand-alone redemption centers, all stores that sell beverages must also register as redemption centers so the number of centers jumped from 300 to 800.

McKee and Marcotte credit their victory for the handling fee increase to state Senator Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, who sponsored the bill.

Sullivan said she first learned about the plight of those who run the redemption centers, the people she credits with making the state’s bottle bill work, from McKee and Marcotte when she first ran for the Legislature.

She said she started working for the increase then, and it’s taken her 12 years to get the bill passed.

According to Sullivan, it was a hard fight for her and the small redemption centers to take on the big beverage companies and their lobbyists to get the fee increase.

“It’s the perfect David and Goliath story,” said Sullivan.

Newell Augur, a spokesman with the Maine Beverage Association, which represents soft drink and other beverage companies, has a different take on the handling fee.

“We now have the highest handling fee of any state,” he said.

“Maine consumers pay $25 million every year,” said Auger. “All of that is spent on only four percent of the waste stream.”

A more efficient route would be for the state to implement single stream recycling, he said.

According to Prince, single stream recycling isn’t efficient or cost-effective for a state as rural as Maine.

Prince said he thinks of the 11 states that have bottle bills, Maine’s is the most comprehensive. He noted that the bill has been successful in keeping bottles and cans off the sides of highways and out of landfills.

“As controversial as it may be,” Prince said of the bill, “it’s done a fantastic job of doing what it set out to do.”


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