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May 2, 2011

The Times Record

The case for removing large containers from the bottle bill

Your editorial earlier this month against a modest and reasonable change to the bottle bill was short on accuracy and long on hyperbole (“Leave the bottle bill alone,” April 5). Unfortunately, you chose to parrot the totally baseless charges of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, instead of giving the proposed legislation an objective review.

The bottle bill’s original purpose was to reduce roadside litter. Over time, it became a recycling program for beverage containers. That should be our primary focus when thinking about what it should look like. 

Instead, Maine’s bottle bill laws have made recycling all about what is in the container, rather than about the container itself.  And that leads to some pretty weird results.

Apple cider is exempt; apple juice is not. Bottles produced by small distributors of water are exempt; bottles produced by large distributors of water are not. Wine sold by out of state distributors is exempt; wine sold by in-state distributors is not. Cardboard juice containers and 12-ounce milk bottles are exempt; plastic orange juice jugs and 2-liter soda bottles are not.

The proposed legislation, LD 1324, would remove large containers — items like one-gallon orange juice jugs, 750 ml liquor bottles and 2-liter soda bottles — from the bottle bill. These large containers are almost exclusively consumed in the home. They are not a threat to roadside litter. 

Contrary to your claim, large containers represent 9 percent of the total number of containers in the bottle bill. 

Moreover, everyone in Maine now has access to a residential recycling program. Large containers can be recycled as part of the municipal or regional recycling program. Your editorial claimed that this would result in a cost shift to towns. Twenty years ago, that was an accurate statement. Today, it isn’t.

When the bottle bill was expanded to include juice and water in 1989, few towns had begun recycling programs. Those containers were being landfilled, at significant cost to municipalities and the environment. Adding them to the bottle bill was the only available option at the time.

But today’s environmental landscape is far different.  Recycling programs now accept household products made of many different materials.  Those materials are sorted, reprocessed and sold in the recyclable materials market. PET plastic (the kind used in most plastic bottles) and aluminum hold some of the highest values for recycled material.

Ninety-nine percent of all large beverage containers are made from PET plastic or aluminum.  Today, local distributors process and sell those recycled containers, when in fact that material could be generating revenue to support local recycling programs. 

Additionally, more and more Maine communities are moving towards single-stream curbside recycling.  It’s simple, convenient and, with the right incentives, can revolutionize how people recycle.

And that is precisely what happened in Brunswick in 2006, when we converted to single-stream recycling and instituted $1 charge for every bag of trash our citizens thrown out. (I served on the Brunswick Town Council at the time and voted to support that reform). The result: we dramatically increased the amount of recycling and cut the amount of trash headed to our landfill by nearly 50 percent. 

The point being that if large containers were removed from the bottle bill, the success of the past four years would indicate that Brunswick residents will put these items in their recycling bin, rather than their green trash bag.

Moving large containers out of the bottle bill will also dramatically reduce the amount of space that distributors need to make available on their trucks.  It takes the entire side of a large truck to haul off barely 3,000 2-liter containers. The same amount of space holds more than 21,000 12-ounce cans. Large containers are only 9 percent of the total amount of containers sold, but in the case of 2-liter bottles, they occupy up to 50 percent of the space on a truck for a typical pick up from a redemption center.

Hauling large containers is unbelievably inefficient, and removing them from the bottle bill would lead to fewer trucks on the road, less fuel used and a smaller carbon footprint — all goals that one would think NRCM would support.

One last thought: Before you accuse the local beverage distributors of any number of different crimes against humanity for proposing modest and reasonable changes to the bottle bill, please remember that those local distributors have consistently and completely fulfilled their obligations under the bottle bill, without incident, for 38 years. 

We have walked the walk, and that is more than can be said for most other industries.  At a minimum, that should merit a full, fair and balanced discussion of this issue.

Newell Augur is director of the Maine Beverage Association, the trade group representing the local distributors of soda, diet soda, juice drinks, sports drinks and water. He lives in Brunswick.


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