AUGUSTA, Maine — Millions of dollars in unredeemed bottle deposits will be a target of the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee. The panel voted this week to consider legislation in the January session to assure the state gets deposits collected but unredeemed by consumers.
“I am amazed at the number of people that pay deposits and then just throw away the bottles or cans,” said Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, sponsor of legislation that would require an audit of the distributors that collect the deposits made by consumers.
“We want to make sure the state gets the funds we know are out there, but I am not sure what the committee will do,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, co-chairwoman of the panel. “We want to address the problem. That’s why we are sending a letter to the people in the field to see how do we achieve it.”
She said the letter is going to the Department of Agriculture that enforces the law and Maine Revenue Service that receives the money from the deposit law. The committee wants the agencies to propose a solution that improves the collection of the unredeemed deposits.
“We’re trying to collect unredeemed deposits that have been paid by Maine consumers and get that money to the state treasurer since it is not going to get into the hands of those consumers,” said Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston. “We are not trying to punish bottlers.”
Maine’s bottle deposit law requires consumers to pay a deposit on all beverage containers except dairy products and unprocessed cider. The amount of the deposit varies from a nickel for most containers to 15 cents for some wine and liquor bottles. 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.
Martin said he proposed the legislation last spring after the state got a check for more than $1 million from a large national company for unredeemed deposits going back several years.
“I think there is a lot more out there, and we should get it back,” he said. “This is not the money of those companies; this is money paid by Maine consumers.”
Hal Prince, director of the Division of Quality Assurance & Regulations at the Department of Agriculture, said the company’s identity is confidential under state law. Prince said the company had “missed” the 2004 law and reviewed its records and determined it owed the state.
In a report to the committee last year, the Agriculture Department 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 said. “The Department is unable to make any recommendation based on the findings of this report.”
The Agriculture Department report did indicate that 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 is in the millions of dollars.
The report frustrated committee members. Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, said collecting what is owed the state for unredeemed deposits should not be so difficult.
“Everything is computerized today,” she said. “Why can’t we just take the list of what is sold in the state and figure out what is owed the state after deposits are returned to people?”
Cheryl Timberlake, executive director of the Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, said the industry does want to comply with the law. She said the law with its shared jurisdiction between two separate state agencies is complicated and clearly is not working.
“Those of us in the industry from the beginning have said we are trying to make this work, but there are so many hurdles,” she said. “I don’t have your silver bullet.”
There are nearly 600 companies registered with the state under the deposit law. They range from multinational companies with many different types of containers covered by the law to small companies with a few containers. The Department of Agriculture has estimated the total number of containers sold in the state this year covered by the law could exceed 1 billion.