April 24, 2011
'Bottle bill' may lose bite
Businesses watching efforts to weaken container law closely
Sean Putman-Labbe makes a comfortable living working at Bottoms Up Beverage Shop in Augusta.
He said he's been able to buy a home and a new car, and plans on getting married in September.
But his entrepreneurial success hasn't stopped efforts to weaken or abolish the state's 33-year-old "bottle bill," on which Putman-Labbe relies for his earnings.
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.
Peggy Dumont doesn't like any of them.
Busy throwing plastic bottles into containers at Randolph Redemption Center on a recent busy day, Dumont said 72 of the 140 cardboard boxes she fills every day with returnables would be thrown into landfills if the law is eliminated.
"I'll lose my job," said Dumont, who has worked at the redemption center for 19 years. "I'm 57 years old. I used to work as a clerk but would have to learn how to type again. And that might be difficult."
Implemented in 1978 and expanded in 1989, Maine was one of the first states to adopt beverage-container recycling, which first came into vogue in the 1970s.
Ten other states have passed similar laws, and new bottle bill proposals are awaiting debate in 11 others, 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.
One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, would exempt wine bottles and containers larger than 28 ounces from redemption. The bill was considered this week in hearings before the Legislature's Committee on Environmental and Natural Resources.
A measure proposed by Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, would remove the 15-cent deposit on wine bottles.
And one bill was introduced to repeal the law entirely. Sponsor Sen. Tom Martin, R-Benton, withdrew it but said he plans to refile it next year.
In testimony from those opposing changes to the law, citizens said they fear job losses, increased roadside litter and dwindling proceeds for organizations -- including redemption center operators, fundraising groups and recycling businesses -- that depend on the 5- and 15-cent deposits.
Those speaking in favor of repeal have included beverage manufacturers and distributors who say it would reduce fuel emissions and save on transportation costs.
As for Putman-Labbe, 25, of Waterville, Prescott's bill alone would kill 30 percent of the center's revenue and hinder efforts to expand.
"Right now, we're considering expanding and hiring more employees," Putman-Labbe said. If the law is hobbled, "that wouldn't be an option."
Matt Prindiville, a Natural Resources Council of Maine lobbyist, said 1,200 Maine jobs are associated with the bottle bill.
"My opinion of the bill is that it would transfer the cost of recycling from out-of-state large corporations like Coca-Cola to Maine taxpayers, who will pay to enlarge landfills to make more room," Putman-Labbe said.
He blamed the LePage administration -- though the governor has not made any statement regarding support for weakening the law.
Hard to handle
A redemption center such as the one operated by Putman-Labbe in Augusta collects the deposit and a 3.5-cent handling fee from the manufacturer, which is then responsible for picking up the returns.
Putman-Labbe said Coca-Cola -- which paired up with Pepsi, Nexcycle Industrial Waste Recycling and Maine Recycling -- picks up the returnables. Their representatives tell redemption center employees how they want the containers sorted, by material type, for example, brand name or size.
Hal Prince, who oversees the bottle bill at the Department of Agriculture, said Mainers redeem approximately 90 percent of all returnable containers purchased here. 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.
A description of the work from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics describes redemption-center work as "repetitive and physically demanding."
"Workers may lift and carry heavy objects and stoop, kneel, crouch or crawl in awkward positions," the description reads. "Some work at great heights and some work outdoors, regardless of weather and climate. Some jobs expose workers to fumes, odors, loud noises, harmful materials and chemicals or dangerous machinery. To protect their eyes, respiratory systems and hearing, these workers wear safety clothing, such as gloves, hardhats, and other safety devices. Material movers generally work 8-hour shifts, though longer shifts also are not uncommon."
Not glamorous work, but -- for some -- it pays.
Nickels from heaven
Bianca Robinson -- a young mother who has been running Bianca's Bottle Redemption next to her home in Manchester for the past three years -- said changes to the bottle bill would cause her to close her $25,000-a-year operation.
"My business puts food on the table and pays the bills when my husband is laid off from his construction job," Robinson said. "My profit is almost $8,000. I started with $300 and have invested back into the company. The business keeps growing all the time.
"If that bill goes through, it would cut my income by more than half."
Robinson, originally from Panama, said the law is a hallmark of a developed nation.
"In my country, before we had a bottle law, there was a huge mess. Bottles and cans everywhere," she said. "Then we got the bottle law and now my country is compared to Hawaii."
Betty Wilson -- who recently brought 20 large garbage bags filled with a winter's worth of bottles and cans to Sharon's Redemption Center in Windsor -- said she's against any changes to the bottle bill.
"When you ride along our roads, you don't see all that trash," said Wilson, of Windsor. "The bottles that are thrown out there are picked up by people who need that little bit of income. It's made me more aware of recycling."
Wilson, who is retired, said the $42.50 she got back from her returns is going into a savings account that she and her husband will use to have fun.
"We've worked all our lives, but now we have a much more controlled income," she said. "So now all these nickels count more than they used to."
Maine Sunday Telegram staff writer Beth Quimby contributed to this report.