State report offers case for expanding bottle law

Used N.H., Maine to compare costs

By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 20, 2011

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Assertions by critics that expanding the bottle law would cost $116 million a year are “inflated’’ and “debunked by objective facts,’’ according to a report by state officials comparing redemption laws in Massachusetts and neighboring states.

“There appears to be no evidence to support claims that updating the Massachusetts [bottle law] will result in increased costs or reduced consumer choices,’’ the authors wrote in the report, which is to be released today by the state Department of Environmental Protection. A hearing on a bill that would expand the law is slated for a hearing this morning on Beacon Hill.

For years, opponents of the landmark bottle law that took effect three decades ago have argued that expanding the law requiring a nickel deposit on each bottle of carbonated soda, beer, and malt beverages to include bottled water and other beverages would increase consumers’ costs, reduce their choices, and impose significant new burdens on retailers.

The report - which compared sales in supermarkets in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire - found that beverages frequently cost more in New Hampshire, which does not have a bottle-redemption law. It said supermarkets with regional operations have “remarkably consistent beverage pricing for both deposit and nondeposit beverages across states.’’

The report also found that “contrary to opponents’ predictions that an updated bottle law leads to less consumer choice, the presence or absence of a deposit did not appear to influence the availability of that beverage at all.’’ It pointed out that in Maine, which recently added a deposit for containers of bottled water, there is a wider range of products available than in Massachusetts.

“Store size appears to be the major determinant of product availability, not bottle deposits,’’ according to the report.

It also found Massachusetts has sufficient capacity to handle the increase in redeemed bottles, there would be minimal changes needed to expand the law, and there were “no additional administrative issues’’ in states that added noncarbonated drinks.

“Our review suggests that an updated bottle bill that excludes bottles larger than 3 liters and juice bottles of all sizes could be easily implemented in Massachusetts stores with the existing infrastructure,’’ the authors wrote.

Opponents of the bottle law have argued that its expansion would amount to an unfair tax, promote fraud by encouraging cross-border sales of bottles, and curb efforts to expand other recycling programs. They argue the state would do better to encourage curbside recycling, which exists in fewer than half of its 351 communities.

“The bottle deposit system is nothing more than a regressive tax system,’’ said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, an industry group that has long lobbied against expanding the law.

“The fact that the administration has put $20 million of additional revenue in their budget to be realized with bottle deposit expansion through unclaimed deposits is proof of that,’’ Flynn said. “Of course, it is disingenuous of the administration to advocate that a law must fail,’’ by consumers not returning containers, “for the state to realize their budget expectations.’’

Flynn called the bottle bill an “archaic system,’’ and he and others called it more expensive than municipal recycling and an extra burden on retail businesses, which survive on low margins.

“Expanding the bottle bill would be very expensive; we calculate a cost of $58 million per year to operate the trucks, lease the equipment, and pay the workers to handle empties,’’ said Kevin Dietly, a principal at Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, a Westford firm hired by the Massachusetts Food Association. “The money to pay those higher costs has to come from somewhere, and consumers’ pockets seem the most likely source.

“When you look at this kind of money to increase the Commonwealth’s recycling rate by one-eighth of 1 percent, it just doesn’t make sense,’’ Dietly said.

Proponents of expanding the bottle law, which passed in 1981 when lawmakers overrode a veto by Governor Edward J. King, argue it is needed to respond to the dramatic rise in the number of plastic containers. The Container Recycling Institute, a California-based monitoring organization, estimated that Americans doubled the bottled water they drank between 2003 and 2005, when more than 50 billion plastic bottles ended up in incinerators, landfills, or as litter.

Moreover, advocates say the updated law could provide a timely boost to state revenue. The Patrick administration estimates the state would raise about $58 million by allowing redemption of an additional 1.5 billion containers a year, or about $20 million more than the current law, and municipalities would save as much as $7 million in trash disposal costs.

“Beacon Hill is running out of excuses for failing to update the bottle bill,’’ said Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. “If it can help us clean up litter, reduce waste, and increase recycling without raising prices, what’s the holdup?’’

Phil Sego, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said the report “echoes the facts’’ in other bottle-bill states.

“Industry wants us to believe that updating our bottle bill would have disastrous results, but in reality it will have a huge positive impact on recycling,’’ he said. Sego said carbonated drinks, such as Coke and Pepsi, are redeemed and recycled at 80 percent, but water, juice, and sports drink containers are recycled at only 22 percent. “With the shift in consumer tastes toward noncarbonated drinks, this means that nearly half of all bottles are tossed in the trash.’’

The report, however, may make little difference, as proposals to update the law have been blocked in every legislative session for more than a decade.

State Representative Alice Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill on the House docket today, said she thinks this year will be different.

With recent polls showing overwhelming support for expanding the law, lawmakers are more likely to listen, she said.

“We have dealt with issues for small businesses, and mom and pop stores won’t have to collect bottles anymore. This will be a good vote for legislators.’’

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.