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May 17, 2009

The News-Times

Redemption centers, stores seek higher bottle fees

HARTFORD, Conn.—Many at the state Capitol in Connecticut are focused on billion-dollar figures these days, given the gaping budget deficit.

But some have their sights set on pennies.

Bottle redemption centers, supermarkets and larger liquor stores are looking to legislators for their first handling fee increase in 31 years. They say it's unaffordable to redeem returnable bottles and cans at 1.5 cents for every empty beer container, 2 cents for every soda container and soon 2 cents for every water bottle.

They're hoping for at least 3 cents for every bottle or can.

"The state has allowed the program to disintegrate. There's only 12 redemption centers left in state," said John Ancheff, owner of DJ's Redemption Center in Waterbury. "If you own a redemption center, you're almost broke."

Many in the General Assembly say they empathize with the redemptions centers, which operate on a very narrow margin and accept copious bottles and cans collected by Boy Scouts and other charities for community fundraisers. They also feel for supermarkets, which typically lease redemption machines and have to handle thousands of dirty, sticky and smelly returnables brought to their stores—losing money on the operation every year.

But there's a big question: In a difficult budget year and a tough economy, where will the money come from to pay the higher fees?

In past legislative sessions, Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, has suggested the money come from the beer and soda distributors, who've kept millions of dollars in unclaimed bottle deposits since 1978. Yet earlier this year, the General Assembly and governor decided the state needed that money—used by the distributors to pay for truckers to pick up redeemed bottles and cans, and to cover other costs—to help bridge the three-year, nearly $10 billion budget deficit.

The distributors, Mushinsky said, tell her that they're now suffering financially.

"At this point, I wouldn't even ask for them to give up additional (money), although three years ago I would have," she said. "They're already dealing with that big change in their life."

Mushinsky said raising the current nickel deposit to a dime may now be the answer.

"I've mulled this over and mulled this over and I don't see any other way to do it," she said. "Unless it magically drops from the sky somewhere, I don't see any other way to do this other than using a 10-cent deposit."

Ancheff doesn't like the idea. He said redemption centers usually wait a month or more to be reimbursed from distributors for the nickels they provide customers who come into their establishments to redeem their returnable bottles and cans. He worries about having the money on hand to pay the customers.

Mushinksky said she's looking at ways to possibly phase in the 10-cent deposit, making it easier on the redemption centers. She's hoping such a change would become part of the new budget, which is currently being negotiated.

The supermarkets don't like the deposit increase idea much either.

Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, said doubling the deposit "would be the biggest disaster ever to hit the state of Connecticut."

He predicted residents from states that don't have bottle bills, such as neighboring Rhode Island, would cross the border and flood stores with returnables that weren't purchased in Connecticut in the first place.

"You'd have a major problem of over-redemption, the state shelling out more dimes than they're collecting," he said.

Last year when the issue of handling fees came before the legislature, Sorkin's group opposed tinkering with the old "Bottle Bill" and backed a plan to create pilot programs for so-called single stream curbside recycling programs, where residents could put all their recyclables into one large bin.

But that bill isn't in play this session, so Sorkin is pushing for a higher handling fee. He said his member supermarkets can no longer afford to be the primary redeemers of returnable bottles and cans.

"It's not a small issue when you look at the number of bottles that get redeemed," he said. For smaller markets, covering the cost of returnable bottles is "a difference between profit and loss."

Stephen Downes, co-owner of Connecticut Beverage Mart, which has stores in Wallingford, Newington, New Britain and Middletown, said he loses money because of the bottle redemption program. When it first started, he paid a couple people $3 an hour to sort the bottles and cans in each store and bag them up for the distributors. Today, he has to pay $10 an hour.

And it's not always a pleasant part of the business.

"They're dirty. You have a pay a roach company once a month to spray," he said. "People bring some dirty, crappy cans back."

But Downes said he's lucky that many customers who come to his stores to return their bottles will spend money on more beer, wine and liquor. He worries about the redemption center owners like Ancheff, who make a living on the tiny handling fees and ultimately relieve the burden for stores like his.

"For the bottle bill to work, the people (collecting) the stuff have to make money," Downes said. "If there's not enough money, he'll go out of business."

AP Political Writer Susan Haigh has covered the Connecticut statehouse and political scene since 1994.


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