March 13, 2011
Tweaks, changes, discussion rage around bottle redemption law
Maine was one of the first states to adopt beverage-container recycling
YARMOUTH -- Ryan Bly of Freeport delivered a car full of empty cans and bottles to the Yarmouth Beverage Redemption Center on Route 1 last week.
Bly collects redeemable containers from family members and cashes them in every two weeks.
"I depend on this for gas," he said.
Bly was one of a steady stream of recyclers at the Yarmouth facility who said they see no reason to change the state's 33-year-old bottle redemption law. The law, originally an anti-litter measure, is widely viewed as the most successful recycling program in the state, and is beloved by fund-raising organizations and those looking for some extra spending money.
But that hasn't stopped ongoing efforts to weaken or abolish the measure. This year alone, legislators have filed a half dozen bills that would water down the law. There are proposals to exempt containers 28 ounces or larger from recycling requirements, to reduce truck traffic created by returnables and to set up a working group to review the law.
A bill to repeal the law entirely has been withdrawn by sponsor Sen. Tom Martin, who plans to re-file it next year.
Tweaks to the law, still commonly referred to as the "bottle bill," are not unusual. During some legislative sessions, up to a dozen bills are filed that would somehow change the measure. But the election of Gov. Paul Lepage and a Republican-led Legislature that has taken up his pledge to reform government regulations has given added energy to the demand for change.
Bottle bill critics say this year's crop of proposed changes is actually part of a long-term effort adopted by a Democratic Legislature. That measure called for reviewing pros and cons of the bottle bill as compared with a single statewide recycling system. The study was never funded.
"Commentators have characterized this opportunistic movement going on. This discussion began two years ago," said Newell Auger, spokesman for the Maine Beverage Association.
Bottle bill proponents see things from another angle.
"The difference this year as opposed to previous years is the beverage industry is getting organized about promoting repeal. They have also gotten very serious about picking away," said Matt Prindiville, legislative coordinator for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Maine was one of the first states to adopt beverage-container recycling, which came into vogue in the 1970s.
Ten other states have passed similar laws, and bottle bill proposals are awaiting debate by lawmakers in 11 other states, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit group in Culver City, Calif., that promotes beverage container recycling.
Maine's law requires a 15-cent deposit on wine and liquor containers and a 5-cent deposit on all others. Dairy products and unprocessed cider containers are exempt. Consumers get the deposit back when they return the container at one of the state's 815 redemption centers.
The redemption center collects the deposit and a 3.5 cent handling fee from the manufacturer, which is responsible for picking up the returns.
Hal Prince, who oversees the bottle bill at the Department of Agriculture, said rough estimates put the redemption rate for returnable containers at 90 percent. The beverage industry believes the rate is closer to 70 percent. Unclaimed deposits on containers that are sold but not redeemed generate about $1.2 million annually for the state.
The redemption law is under siege in some states. Last year, Delaware dumped its 26-year-old bottle bill in favor of a statewide recycling program, funded with a 4-cent-per-bottle fee that replaced the 5-cent deposit previously charged for beverage containers. The fee will end once the fund reaches $22 million, or in December, 2014.
Vermont, which has had a bottle bill since 1973, is also considering legislation that would replace its law with curbside recycling.
Martin filed a similar proposal this year, then withdrew it.
"This project is best left until next session," Martin said last week.
For now, Martin said he will work to support a bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, which would reduce the frequency of pickups by beverage distributors at redemption centers.
Under current law, every time a distributor makes a delivery to a retailer, it must also pick up the returnables at the retailer's redemption center. Rector said his bill would require a pickup only if there are $750 worth of containers -- about 40 bags -- or once a month.
Backers of the bill, which include the Maine Beverage Association, say the current system is inefficient, burning up large amounts of fossil fuels.
Bottle bill advocates say they are not opposed to making the system more efficient.
"It sounds feasible," said Matt Prindiville.
Supporters of the current law say they are more concerned about two bills that would exempt large containers from redemption. Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield's bill would remove the 15-cent deposit on wine bottles, and a proposal by Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, would exempt all bottles above 28 ounces.
Auger said both bills are good ideas because large containers, which he estimates make up 12 percent to 15 percent of redeemable containers, tend to be consumed at home, and most households have access to recycling programs where they can take them.
"These larger containers are not a threat to roadside litter," he said.
However, bottle bill advocates say large containers represent 20 to 30 percent of the beverage containers, and putting them back in the waste stream would not only lead to more litter but would also require communities to pick up the costs of disposing of them.
Prindiville, at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said exempting large bottles from the law would also take 20 to 30 percent of the revenue away from redemption centers.
"They are very concerned about what is going on. There are 1,200 jobs associated with the bottle bill," he said.
Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, has filed a bill to form a group of affected parties that would re-examine the bottle bill system and possibly replace it with curbside recycling.
"The goal is just simply to convene a working group of stakeholders to revisit the entire issue," said Hastings, who sponsored the proposal at the request of the bottling industry.
Bottle bill proponents say curbside recycling programs are less effective. They view the move as a back-door attempt to scuttle redemption by the bottling industry, which wants to get out of the $20 million it pays a year to comply with the bottle bill.
"They have been working hard for some 35 years to prevent the expansion or weaken it. They now have a pretty sophisticated green-washing strategy," said Prindiville.
Gov. Paul LePage has so far kept out of the debate.
"It is something that if it gets to his desk he will have to look at. But he has nothing to contribute at this point," said Dan Demerrit, LePage spokesman.
The bottle bill legislation is headed for the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, for hearings that may be held late this month or early in April. Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, committee chairman, said he will likely schedule all the hearings at the same time.
Meanwhile, some bottle bill supporters say they will be following events in the Legislature. They said the bottle bill is so popular, it would be difficult to abolish it.
"There is so much support for the bottle bill just by the citizens in Maine. You can't turn the tide on something like that," said Dale Miles, owner of the Brighton Avenue Redemption Center in Portland
Anne Maher of Cumberland, gleefully counting the $18.15 she made on returns at the Yarmouth Redemption Center last week, said attacking the bottle bill is a big mistake.
"A bunch of people will be out of work," she said.
BOTTLE BILL BY THE NUMBERS:
Estimated number of redeemable containers sold in Maine annually: About 1 billion
Percentage of redeemable containers returned annually: 70 percent to 90 percent
Estimated jobs created by the bottle bill: 1,200
Number of redemption centers: 815
Number of different types of containers subject to the bottle bill: 28,252
Not all of the bills to revise the bottle bill are yet available. Here are links to those that are available: