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February 16, 2011

The Portland Press Herald

Bottle bill latest target in Maine's moment of change
A successful 33-year-old anti-litter program is up for review in this new political environment.

You've got to hand it to them: The Maine Beverage Association knows an opportunity when it sees one.

A day after the York County DA indicted three people for allegedly trying to collect Maine deposits on truckloads of bottles and cans that were sold in some non-bottle-bill state to our south, leading distributors held a press conference to highlight the fraud that challenges their industry.

In their billion-container-a-year business in Maine, they estimate that as many as 10 percent of the bottles redeemed here were not sold with a Maine deposit. If that's right, that would add up to 100 million nickels paid out in error.

To fight that fraud, they recommend changes to the 33-year-old bottle bill, which makes them collect and redeem deposits on drink containers. Not to repeal it, mind you, but to bring it up to date and make it better.

The improvements would move cans and bottles into the same recycling stream that we use for all other products. That sounds a lot like treating beverage containers the same way we treat items like newspapers and margarine tubs – which sounds a lot like no bottle bill.

You can't blame the distributors. They just have good timing.

First, they had the biggest false deposit redemption scam ever uncovered in Maine.

And there is clearly a heady moment right now in Augusta. Being a corporation in 2011 is like being a hippie in the Summer of Love. They've got all the momentum, and anything is possible.

Long-standing environmental rules and regulations, often passed with near-unanimous support, are up for grabs.

Change is in the air – and in the water and maybe along the side of the roads.

What the distributors are questioning is a beverage container deposit system that went into effect in 1978. The goal was to reduce litter, largely made up of empty beverage containers, which was not only ugly, but also created a great expense for the municipalities and the state, which had to clean it up.

The law has been a dramatic success.

Maine has a 90 percent redemption rate on bottles and cans. Even if that includes 10 percent fraud (and there is no way of knowing if the industry's estimate is remotely accurate), that means 80 percent of the containers come back, as opposed to the 24 percent recycling rate in non-bottle-bill states.

That's good news for most Mainers. But what's good for most Mainers is not necessarily good for the people who sell soda.

Before I get accused of demonizing honest businessmen, let me say that I understand that in some macroeconomic way, what's good for the distributors is good for Maine.

They create jobs and generate economic activity that adds to the gross state product. Many of Maine's problems would go away or at least not seem as severe if we had more profitable businesses.

But that doesn't mean that everything that's good for the soft drink distributors is good for everyone.

The people who gave us rotten teeth, childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes might not mind so much if roadside litter became someone else's problem, but do we have to really have to take that deal?

Not everything the distributors want seems out of line.

They are asking the Legislature – when it gets done figuring out a suitable honorific for the whoopie pie – to give them the right to sue people who truck in from out of state returnables that are not really returnable here, which sounds like a good way to go after large-scale fraud.

(This kind of scam always confuses me. Anybody willing to work as hard as these alleged evildoers seems unsuited to a life of crime. There have got to be easier ways to make a nickel honestly.)

And they say they want to sit down with environmentalists and other "stakeholders" to discuss whether there is a better way to achieve the bottle bill's goals.

I'm generally in favor of people having meetings (as long as I don't have to go to them). Maybe along with the permanent status of West Jerusalem settlements and the long-term health of the Social Security trust fund, there is a bottle deposit solution that has escaped the parties for decades and will emerge from talks.

But who says it's one that the soda companies want?

A nickel ain't what it used to be, and a 5-cent purchase in 1978 would cost 17.5 cents today.

If the bottle bill is really going to be updated, maybe the incentives should be brought back to where they were when the law was passed.


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