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A bottle business pick-up

Adding water to redeemable list would cut litter, advocates say

By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 25, 2012
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It’s an ironic routine that plays out nearly every day on streets throughout the state, in which a law designed to reduce litter ends up producing it.

Because the state’s bottle law has not been updated in more than 30 years to allow noncarbonated beverages to be redeemed for a nickel, as it allows for soda, beer, and malt beverages, the legion of trash pickers who make their rounds to collect bottles and cans often toss the bottled water, Gatorade, and other containers not covered by the law into the street.

Advocates for an expanded bottle law, which passed the state Senate last week after 18 years of being proposed, argue that it would reduce litter and provide thousands of poor residents a means of increasing their income, as water, juice, and sports drinks now account for more than a third of all beverages sold in Massachusetts.

“There are a lot of people who supplement their income by picking up empty containers, and if the containers that don’t have a deposit are included, they’ll pick those up as well, which will benefit them as well as reduce litter,” said Phil Sego, a spokesman for Massachusetts Sierra Club. “It’s an unintended benefit.”

The bill, which passed as an amendment to economic development legislation, faces an uncertain fate. It will be debated in the coming days by a conference committee of six lawmakers from the House and Senate.

Among them will be Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who chairs the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies and vigorously opposes expanding the bottle law.

“In my opinion, it would be viewed as a tax, even if it wouldn’t fit the definition of a tax,” he said, also taking issue with how the amendment passed the Senate by voice vote and without debate.

A chart by MassPIRG, a state advocacy group that has pushed to expand the bottle law, shows only one of the conference committee’s appointees on record with the group supporting the bill.

The other five members did not provide their position on the issue when requested to by MassPIRG, which is planning a rally outside the State House on Wednesday in support of expanding the bottle law.

“I don’t think the bill before us should include a provision to expand the bottle law,” Wagner said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

On the streets this week, those who earn a living or pocket money from collecting cans and bottles said they would see a significant boost to their income if they could redeem water bottles and other containers not included in the current law, which passed in 1981 when few people drank such beverages.

“It would mean a lot,” said Peter Pirtron, 50, while making the rounds going through trash and recycling bins in South Boston and loading soda cans and beer bottles in a cart. “I could really live good . . . board money, shopping, maybe look for a girlfriend.”

When asked how much more he could earn if he could redeem water bottles, he said: “Twice as much, I think. They’re all over the place.”

At the East Boston Bottle & Can Return, Steven Tran, the owner, said updating the bottle law would have a huge benefit for his business, which has floundered in recent years like many of the state’s redemption centers.

Since 1995, as the value of the nickel has fallen, the number of such facilities has plummeted by more than half, and during the same period, the redemption of cans and bottles has slid from 87 percent of eligible containers to about 68 percent last year.

Redemption centers, which have not had an increase since 1990 in the 2.25-cent fee distributors must pay them for every bottle returned, would get an additional penny a bottle if the bill becomes law.

“We’ve all been waiting for this to happen for a very long time,” said Tran, who has been in the business for 12 years. “It would really benefit us.”

Over the course of the morning on Tuesday, scores of customers came in with carts, boxes, and bags filled with thousands of cans, some of which were not redeemable. Those were tossed into the trash.

Nilda Cordoba, 67, of East Boston, said she has been collecting and redeeming containers for two decades.

She said the extra money — $10 to $20 per visit to the redemption center — was important to her.

“If we could bring in all the other bottles that stay in the trash, that would be huge — really helpful,” she said.

For Arthur Dauwer, 49, of Revere, the benefits go beyond the extra cash.

“I would welcome a change to the law in a heartbeat,” he said while unloading his bottles. “What kills me is that we’re just throwing all these other bottles into landfills. It’s a huge waste.”

As she stacked her bottles and cans in neat rows to be counted by a redemption center employee, Brenda Stafford, 67, of East Boston, said she could not understand why some bottles were covered by the law and others were not, even though they looked identical.

“I could use every penny I could get,” she said.

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

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