Bottle deposit change triggers opposition
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | February 28,2014
MONTPELIER — Legislation that would repeal the deposit on liquor bottles and beverage containers 1 liter and larger is drawing strong opposition from redemption centers and environmental advocates who see it as a first step in ending the four-decade-old program.
The provisions are included in S.208, a solid waste bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He said the proposed changes to the state’s bottle redemption law, enacted in 1973, are a step toward a single-stream solid waste system.
In a single-stream system, all solid waste, including bottles and cans and other recyclable material, is collected together and sorted at a materials recovery facility. Proponents say it is more efficient and allows more people to participate in recycling because sorting at home is not required.
Vermont’s bottle redemption law created a separate waste stream for bottles and cans. Although the legislation wouldn’t repeal the entire bottle law, a broader discussion is already taking place in committee, and amendments could be submitted when the bill hits the Senate floor.
David Ellenbogen, the vice chairman of the Vermont Sierra Club, told the committee Thursday that the bottle bill has changed the habits of Vermonters and raised recycling rates.
He said weakening the law would hurt the state’s reputation as an environment-friendly state.
“How would headlines read outside of Vermont if the bottle bill were to be weakened or abolished?” he asked.
Ellenbogen also argued that bottles and cans would dot Vermont’s landscape if deposits were eliminated. Because the containers currently have value, many people scour the roadside for them and take them to a redemption center, he said.
“Those people are not going to do it if they’re not getting a nickel a bottle,” he said. “Where are those bottles going to go?”
Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said his organization opposes the bill because of its impact on the bottle redemption law. He told lawmakers it is the most successful environmental law in Vermont in the past 40 years and should be expanded to include even more recyclable containers.
A November 2010 poll funded by VPIRG showed that 93 percent of Vermonters support the law, with 75 percent indicating strong support, Burns said. Just 4 percent said the redemption law is a bad idea, and 86 percent supported an expansion to include more products made from aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.
Redemption center owners also testified Thursday, saying their businesses would take a big hit if the redemption law were weakened or eliminated. Arthur Carroll, owner of Springfield Redemption Center, spoke on behalf of about 100 such businesses.
He said the bottle provisions in the bill are “meant to end Vermont’s bottle bill.” The beverage industry, Carroll said, has successfully lobbied lawmakers to prevent about 30 bills seeking an expansion of the law in recent years.
Bob Coloutti, owner of Terrill Street Discount Beverage in Rutland, said his redemption center attracts customers to his store. Any weakening of the law would harm his business, he said.
“It’s a calling card for me,” Coloutti said. “It gets people to come to my store. Without redemption, the reason for my store is greatly in jeopardy, and so is my business.”
He added, “Not a lot of what gets talked about is what happens to these businesses if redemption goes away.”
The sorting of bottles and cans is also providing jobs for people who may otherwise struggle to secure employment, he said.
“They’re not wielding a résumé,” Coloutti said. “They’re not college educated, but they are hardworking and looking to earn a wage. You can’t just take something away that’s been in place for 30 years and think that people are just going to keep on trucking.”
Ray Dube, sustainability manager for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England, told lawmakers that recovered material from the recycling of bottles and cans has value and is used in a variety of products. Fleece used in apparel and the stuffing used by the Vermont Teddy Bear Co. are made from recycled PET, he said.
Dube said even more products should be recycled but consumers are largely unaware. Among widely used products that end up in landfills are tomato containers, ketchup bottles and peanut butter jars, he said.
Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist representing the Beverage Association of Vermont, said the industry is seeking a single-stream waste system to improve efficiency. It would also save distributors money, he said.
Currently, distributors must pay a 3.5-cent handling fee for each can or bottle brought back to a redemption center. Vermont’s handling fee is the highest in the country, MacLean said.
Should lawmakers move to repeal the redemption law and move to a single-stream system, he said, the beverage industry is prepared to fund public recycling containers to prevent littering and launch “a very intense” public education campaign.
How the legislation will evolve remains unclear. Hartwell said Thursday his goal is to adopt a comprehensive single-stream solid waste system that incorporates bottles and cans.
The bottle provision is intended to at least spur discussion on how the existing redemption system can be phased out in favor of single-stream, he said.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the bottle provisions right now, but the point is that there has to be a comprehensive solid waste system,” Hartwell said.
Although he acknowledged that including a repeal of the deposit on liquor bottles and larger containers in S.208 is “inviting trouble,” Hartwell said he “never intended to repeal the bottle bill in this bill.”
The full committee will have a chance to weigh in on how to proceed, he said.
“If the committee wants to just leave it alone for the time being, then that’s what they want,” Hartwell said.