Lawmakers: Get the facts on unredeemed deposits

Posted Nov. 22, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

Perhaps lawmakers should know what they’re talking about before they start drafting legislation, “Lawmakers target unredeemed bottle deposits” (BDN, Nov. 13). Rep. John Martin is sponsoring a law that would “require an audit of the distributors that collect the deposits made by consumers.” Why do we need to waste time and money on an audit when every distributor in Maine must already know how much money it collects in deposits? As a wholesale wine distributor, not only do I know down to the penny what I collect each year, but I am required by state law to keep records of what I sell. You don’t need to audit me, just ask.

Rep. Elizabeth Schneider says lawmakers will send a letter to “the people in the field” to see how to collect unredeemed deposits. Then she identifies state Department of Agriculture and Maine Revenue Service workers as the recipients of those letters. These are hardly the “people in the field.” How about asking the people who sticker the bottles, charge customers for the deposit, and then pay to have someone pick up and then dispose of the bottles?

Sen. Schneider also seems certain there’s a pile of money in unredeemed deposits sitting in the bank accounts of us wholesalers. I can tell you that is not the case.

In addition to what it costs us to make the stickers and hire people to put them on every single bottle we sell in the state of Maine (distributors in other states do not have this expense), we also pay to have bottles picked up and disposed of. We collect a 15-cent deposit on all of our bottles, but we pay 28 cents per bottle to the company that picks them up from redemption centers. I haven’t calculated the labor and supply costs of handling every single bottle we sell by having to affix a sticker on it, but even if it’s just 2 cents a bottle, that means we’re paying twice as much per bottle to fund the state’s redemption program as we charge in deposits.

Sen. Chris Rector says, “We are not trying to punish bottlers.” Well, you wouldn’t be punishing bottlers by collecting the so-called “unredeemed” deposits; you’d be punishing me, a distributor of those bottles. If only half the bottles I collect deposits on are redeemed, I guess I’d break even. But I’m told by the company that picks my bottles up from redemption centers that they’re rounding up 90 percent of what I sell (and they provide me with monthly, itemized reports to prove it).

But here’s the real clincher: I have no idea how they know that. So I’m pretty sure Sen. Nancy Sullivan can’t know it either, despite her desire to “just take the list of what is sold in the state and figure out what is owed the state after deposits are returned to the people.”

Part of the reason that doesn’t work is because something I sell today may take years to wind up at a redemption center. Not only do many upper-end wines sit on retail shelves for months, sometimes years, but many consumers don’t actually consume them. They may want to cellar them to improve their quality, or they may be collectors. They’ve willingly waived their right to redeem their deposit in that case.

Likewise, people who throw bottles away are doing the same. Despite Mr. Martin’s “amazement” that people do this, surely he’s not so out of touch that he doesn’t know one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Lots of people make a little extra pocket money by picking up discarded bottles and collecting the deposits. Municipal recycling centers also often allow charity bottle drives at their collection sites, so, again, the wasteful habits of some wind up benefiting others.

All that aside, what makes Sullivan, Martin, Rector and Schneider so sure these so-called “unredeemed deposits” belong to the state? Does the state pay to sticker the bottles, collect the 15-cent deposits, and hire someone to pick up the bottles? No.

But I do. I also operate a business that helps a half-dozen young Maine workers stay in the state they love. And I do it at a higher cost than my counterparts in other states. And, so far, I do it happily because I also choose to live in Maine.

I’m proud our state has a bottle bill, and I want to do my part. But, lawmakers: Please don’t add even more to my cost of doing business, especially when you don’t seem to understand what you’re talking about.

Tammy Lacher Scully is a co-owner of Easterly Wine LLC in Belfast.

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