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Bottle Bill, The Sequel

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It wouldn’t be a new legislative session without a battle over the fate of Massachusetts’ bottle bill; it’s like the Die Hard of public policy, albeit with fewer explosions and less money—though still a significant amount—at stake.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the bottle bill. Over that time, more than 35 billion carbonated drink containers have been redeemed through the program, “contributing to a healthier environment, cleaner and safer communities, and a stronger economy,” in the words of the Mass. Coalition to Update the Bottle Bill.

In recent years, environmental groups have called for the bill to be expanded to cover bottled drinks that weren’t especially popular when the bill first passed, such as water, iced tea, juice and sports drinks, which the coalition says accounts for more than one-third of the 3.3 billion beverage containers bought each year in the state. Session after session, expansion bills have been filed. And session after session, they’ve failed, due in large part to the lobbying efforts of drink bottlers and distributors, who by law pay for the redemption system and say an expansion would hurt them financially.

Last summer, activists believed they had the votes to pass an updated bottle bill, only to see it die after the House sent it to languish in committee and a joint conference committee dropped the language from a Senate version of a jobs bill to which it had been attached. (See “Spinning the Bottle,” Aug. 9, 2012.)

This year’s attempt is a pair of companion bills, filed in the Senate by Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) and by Rep. Jonathan Hecht (D-Watertown) in the House. The bill would amend the law to include five-cent deposits on non-carbonated beverage bottles, with exemptions carved out for alcoholic drinks, milk and baby formula.

While Creem’s and Hecht’s bill seeks to expand the bottle bill, a rival bill filed by Sen. Michael Moore (D-Millbury) would repeal it. Moore—whose central Mass. district includes Polar Beverages, a major employer in the Worcester area with about 1,200 workers—instead calls for imposing a fee of one cent per beverage container on bottlers and distributors, with the money going to support recycling programs. The proposed fee would apply to a wider range of products than the existing law, including carbonated, non-carbonated, dairy and alcoholic drinks.

Moore’s proposal has strong industry support. Chris Flynn, president of the Mass. Food Association, a chief opponent of the bottle bill, recently told the Patriot-Ledger that separating bottles to return to a store, rather than recycling them with other household items, is inefficient and expensive. “Ninety percent of the cities and towns have available to them either curbside or drop-off programs for their recyclables,” he said. “Why are we segregating recyclables, some of the recyclables, and bringing them back to a food store?”

Supporters of expanding the existing law say they’re all for beefing up recycling efforts, but to supplement, not replace, the deposit-redemption program. “The bottling industry perpetuates an incorrect assumption that states must choose between curbside programs and deposit laws,” says the Coalition to Update the Bottle Bill. “Recycling data proves that both systems are necessary. Beverages are purchased and consumed both at home—where curbside recycling can be effective—and also away from home for immediate consumption. Beverages consumed away from home can be captured with deposits, but are beyond the reach of curbside programs.”

The Mass. Sierra Club calls Moore’s bill “an effort to maximize the profits of bottlers and supermarkets at public expense.” In a statement, the group added that the fees collected “would barely fund enough recycling containers for a small city, and would do nothing to fund cleanup efforts.” Repealing the bottle bill, the Sierra Club said, would cost jobs in the recycling industry and would replace an effective redemption program with a less effective voluntary-recycling effort.

“The existing bottle bill is the perfect example of corporate responsibility: those who create the problem, manufacturing billions of beverages annually in Massachusetts alone, pay to help clean up the mess that’s created,” the Sierra Club said. “Their repeal proposal is corporate irresponsibility at its worst.”•

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