AUGUSTA, Maine — State officials were surprised earlier this week when they got a check from a company for unredeemed bottle deposits of nearly $1 million, nearly as much as is usually collected in a year.
“It was a surprise when I had a draft agreement come across from Maine Revenue Services,” Hal Prince, director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations at the Maine Department of Agriculture, said Wednesday.
“This company had found they had been in violation for several years and wanted to make good on it. Yeah, that was a surprise.”
Maine’s bottle deposit law requires consumers to pay a deposit on all beverage containers except dairy products and unprocessed cider. While most consumers turn in those used containers and get their deposit money back, every year millions of containers are not returned, and that money is supposed to go to the state.
Prince said the company, whose identity is confidential under state law, went back to the beginning of the bottle deposit law and determined it owed unredeemed deposits in excess of what it already had paid to the state.
“Somehow they had missed that this legislation was passed in 2004,” Prince said. “We have been getting the word out really well lately. A lot of companies are now coming into compliance. Our efforts, I think, are paying off.”
Prince said there are nearly 600 companies registered with the state under the deposit law. He says they range from multinational companies with many different types of containers covered by the law to small companies with a few containers.
Maine received $1.2 million from unredeemed deposits in 2006, and Prince said he believes that number will grow as more companies realize they need to pay the state their unredeemed deposits.
One lawmaker is confident the state is owed millions more. Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, has introduced legislation requiring an audit of compliance with Maine’s bottle deposit law over the last 15 years.
“I think this is just one indication of how much there may be that is owed Mainers,” he said Wednesday. “I think it is clear there is a lot more.”
Martin said that not all of the deposits on the estimated billion containers sold in Maine in a year are being accounted for. He said his proposed audit would provide answers to questions both lawmakers and officials at the Department of Agriculture have had for several years.
“Knowing that there are others out there, I am hoping that the information that has gone out nationwide will get to companies and that they will voluntarily come forth,” he said.
Martin said stories about his legislation received wide dissemination on the Internet, and he hopes it will result in further voluntary compliance.
In a report to the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee last year, the Department of Agriculture stated it could not answer the question of how many companies were not complying with the state laws after trying to obtain information from bottlers and distributors at the direction of the panel.
“The majority of the industry’s participation in responding to the survey questions was insufficient to reach any reliable conclusions. Many responses lacked sufficient data, and there was no means to verify the data that was reported,” the study stated. “The Department is unable to make any recommendation based on the find-ings of this report.”
The agriculture department report indicated there are containers that are not being registered with the state, and that with an overall increase in the number of containers, the value of the unredeemed deposits are in the millions of dollars.
Martin’s proposal has been criticized by Maine bottlers and distributors for being over-reaching.
Cheryl Timberlake, executive director of the Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, said Wednesday any audit should be far broader than tracking the deposit money. She said the law was passed to address the problems of roadside litter and to assure the recycling of bottles and cans instead of adding them to the state’s waste problem.
Newell Augur of the Maine Beverage Association, which represents many bottlers and distributors in the state, said last year in response to the study that the survey accounted for “eighty-five to ninety percent” of the containers in the state.
But Randy Trahan, the department inspector assigned to enforcing the bottle law, said distributors are being audited to make sure all the containers they are distributing have been registered with the state. He said in an audit last spring that one large distributor in southern Maine had only 30 percent of their containers registered.