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March 14, 2011

Your Public Media

Bottle Bills Face Challenges
Maine and Vermont are considering proposals to change recycling laws.

Bottle deposit laws are facing challenges in two Northeast states. These laws require consumers to pay a deposit on a beverage bottle or can. The idea is to motivate people to return their empties, keeping the containers out of landfills and reducing litter.

But members of the beverage industry say the laws are costly, especially for them. And now they're backing efforts to weaken laws that have been in place for decades.  As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations Josie Huang of Maine Public Radio reports.

At a redemption center outside Portland, Maine, Susie Konkle drops off nearly a dozen bags stuffed with empties. She gets 15 cents for wine and liquor bottles, 5 cents for everything else, and she says it all goes to her favorite charity.

“I do it all year long,” Konkle says, “And then I keep the cash at the end of the season, I turn it to Strike Out Cancer for Kids."

But a proposal in Maine would get rid of the deposits on the liquor and wine bottles Konkle has collected. Supporters of deposit laws say this is an attempt to erode a system that has boosted container recycling rates four times higher than in states without deposit laws.

But beverage distributors say deposit laws are too expensive. They have to pay the redemption centers and stores to collect the containers for recycling. Ray Dube works as a manager at the Coca-Cola distribution facility in South Portland, Maine.

“Is there an effect to our bottom line?” Dube says. “Of course, everybody is trying to make our systems more efficient. We're no different than milk delivery guys or people selling cars, or people manufacturing airplane parts. We're all working for a better bottom line."

Dube says bottle deposit expenses are multiplied by fraud. He says people try to redeem cans or bottles in Maine even though they purchased them in neighboring New Hampshire, which doesn't have a redemption law.

At a press conference on a recent fraud case, Newell Augur of the Maine Beverage Association, said bottle redemption laws are unnecessary. He points out cities and towns are offering programs where residents can recycle everything -- not just bottles -- right from their curbside.

“It would seem to make sense that if our goal as a state is to significantly reduce the cost to recycle and increase the number of items that are recycled, it might be a good time to explore other possible options as has been done and is going on now in other states,” Augur says.

A bill pending in Vermont would call on producers of all packaging to fund a statewide recycling system that would include everything from cardboard boxes to mayonnaise jars.

Jennifer Holliday oversees legislative affairs for the Chittenden Solid Waste District, the largest solid waste district in Vermont.  

"We need to look at the whole system and see where the volume of material is generated and what it is and how to capture that,” Holliday says. “Beverage containers are only a piece of that."

Delaware repealed its bottle redemption law last year, and replaced it with a temporary tax on beverage containers that's helping to fund a statewide recycling program.

Bottle bill champions such as Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute, say a tax just shifts the cost burdens of recycling onto consumers.

"The container deposit laws are examples of extended producer responsibility,” Collins says. “The industry itself has to manage and finance the program."

Collins says that curbside recycling alone won't keep bottles out of landfills.

"People drink a lot of beverages away from homes, and in places where there aren't recycling programs like bars and restaurants and offices, and sports complexes,” Collins says.

Despite proposals to roll back bottle redemption laws, there are also efforts to expand them. In Vermont and Massachusetts, proposals would place deposits on new types of containers, such as water bottles. Something Connecticut, Maine and New York have already adopted. 

For WNPR I'm Josie Huang. 


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