Challenges to Maine’s bottle redemption law afoot

Joey Ouellette (right), owner of Skeeter's Redemption Center in Old Town, sorts bottles for customer Ryan Porter of Old Town. Ouellette does not feel that removing the 15 cent deposit on wine and liquor bottles will result in people recycling them rather than throwing them in the trash.
Joey Ouellette (right), owner of Skeeter's Redemption Center in Old Town, sorts bottles for customer Ryan Porter of Old Town. Ouellette does not feel that removing the 15 cent deposit on wine and liquor bottles will result in people recycling them rather than throwing them in the trash.
Posted March 31, 2011, at 7:34 p.m.
Last modified March 31, 2011, at 10:12 p.m.

OLD TOWN, Maine — As far as Joey Ouellette is concerned, if the 34-year-old Maine bottle redemption law isn’t broken, why fix it?

Ouellette owns Skeeter’s Redemption Center in Old Town, where three people work to collect and sort the mountains of bottles and cans that the area’s college students and others redeem for nickels and dimes. The small business acts as a middleman, he said, and sells those bottles back to the distributors for 3.5 cents more than the deposit it paid out.

“It keeps the state clean,” Ouellette said of the law. “And people are getting some little extra change. It helps all around.”

Recent challenges to that law, which is also known as the “bottle bill,” worry the small-business owner — including one proposal that would exempt any beverage container larger than 28 ounces from the bottle bill. That measure also would establish a uniform deposit of 5 cents for all containers.

“We’ll have a lot of mess on the streets,” Ouellette predicted Thursday.

With annual bottles sales in Maine estimated to be nearly 1 billion, according to the State Planning Office, the bottle bill equals big bucks, too. With the Legislature this session considering five separate changes to the bill, both those in favor of the changes and those against them feel that the stakes are high for the bottle bill.

Supporters of the changes say they will improve the law without weakening the environmental benefits that caused it to be enacted back in 1976.

“We’re not going to support anything that we think takes Maine backward environmentally or economically,” said Newell Augur of the Maine Beverage Association, a trade group in favor of the changes.

But the bills’ opponents fear that some of the proposed changes would damage both the environment and the estimated 815 businesses, many small, that facilitate bottle recycling. Jobs created because of the bottle bill now employ more than 1,300 people in Maine, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Additionally, unclaimed deposits are a source of revenue for the state, a sum that in 2006 added up to $1.2 million, according to a report from the Maine Department of Agriculture, which oversees the bottle bill.

Opponents also worry that the bills are the precursors to a much larger change — doing away with the bottle bill entirely.

“The beverage industry is essentially trying to chip away at the bottle bill, piece by piece,” said Matt Prindiville of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Ultimately they would like a full repeal of the bottle bill, as they have sought in other states. This is our state’s most successful recycling program. We don’t want to see the beverage industry chip away at it.”

Public hearings on all five bills related to the bottle bill will be held at 9 a.m. Friday, April 15, in Room 216 of the Cross Office Building in Augusta.

Sen. Tom Martin, R-Benton, who had introduced a bill to repeal the law entirely, has withdrawn that measure, according to his legislative aide. The aide said Thursday he was not able to verify reports that Martin plans to refile it next year.

In addition to exempting containers larger than 28 ounces and establishing uniform deposits for all containers, sponsors of the five bills are aiming to reduce truck travel to and from redemption centers, reduce bottle deposit redemption fraud, restore limits on the location of licensed redemption centers and exempt small distributors from unclaimed deposit requirements.

Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, is the sponsor of LD 728, An Act to Reduce Truck Travel Caused by the Bottle Redemption Laws.

He said that when the bottle bill was first established there was a fear that redemption centers wouldn’t have their bottles picked up regularly, and so distributors were required to stop at all redemption centers every time trucks made a delivery to any dealer or retailer with an agreement with that redemption center.

“It made sense when there were a few hundred redemption centers,” Rector said. “It doesn’t make sense to have trailer trucks driving around the state stopping at tiny redemption centers every time they come to town. We’re wasting a lot of gasoline to pick up a few redeemable containers.”

If the bill becomes law, it will mean that distributors will be obligated to pick up beverage containers at every redemption center every 30 days and to make additional pickups when the center has $750 worth of beverage containers.

“I think it’s a common-sense green bill,” Rector said. “It does nothing to undermine the program.”

According to Augur, the Maine Beverage Association is in favor of all five of the proposed changes, including LD 1324, An Act To Create Consistency and Fairness in Maine’s Bottle Bill.

“We think people ought to be thinking about the bottle bill based on whether the bottle is a threat to roadside litter, and whether the bottle can be recycled,” he said. “The issue isn’t what’s inside the container. The issue is the size.”

Bottles larger than 28 ounces are generally consumed at home, he said, meaning that people can easily take their empties to municipal recycling programs.

Those recycling programs didn’t exist when the bill first became law, Augur said.

“Twenty years ago, those containers were a cost to municipalities, and were added to the landfills,” he said. “Today, the landscape is much different. We have recycling programs throughout the state that accept household products of many different types of materials.”

Prindiville, and the Natural Resources Council of Maine, vehemently disagree with his conclusion that people will simply recycle larger bottles at their local centers.

In states without bottle bills, an average of 24 percent of beverage containers are recycled voluntarily, she said. In Maine, that number is estimated to be as high as 85 to 95 percent, although Augur places it between 70 and 75 percent.

“Exempting these larger beverage containers is a strategy by the beverage industry to transfer costs to towns and taxpayers,” the council said in a position paper opposing the bill. “Exempting the significant volume of larger containers from the bottle bill means that a high percentage likely would end up along roadways and in landfills, and the elimination of this segment of containers would have an impact on the economics of Maine’s bottle bill.”

Rep. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, is a co-sponsor of the bill to exempt larger bottles. He said that the bottle bill had strong Republican support when it was first promoted, and he sees the tweaks as making a good law better — not nibbling away at its foundations.

“I can respect that the Natural Resources Council has always been a strong supporter of the bottle bill, but I think they’re being a little obtuse on this,” he said. “This is not an effort from corporate America to repeal the bottle bill.”

Cushing would like to see bigger beverage containers move into single-stream recycling programs, which generally have a higher participation rate than other programs. He said that it will encourage higher levels of recycling and also streamline the bottle redemption process by removing larger, “orphan” bottles from the mix, as well as the large trucks sent to pick them up.

It also makes sense from a public policy point of view, he said.

“We’ve got to smartly manage the space we have now to control the growth of solid waste,” Cushing said. “The whole emphasis, I believe, of the recycling movement was to reuse components, so we’re not filling our landfills up with items. We’re not creating landfills, because nobody wants them in their backyard.”

According to Prindiville, single-stream recycling is not the panacea that he said some believe. Large glass bottles shatter easily and contaminate the stream, he said, adding that towns absorb the cost of those recycling programs.

“It would be a major cost to the towns,” he said.

Prindiville said that the beverage industry led a successful charge to repeal Delaware’s bottle bill in 2010, and that efforts now are focused on repealing the law in Vermont. There are now bottle bills on the books in 10 states and Guam, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

“A lot of people think that Vermont’s a green state,” Prindiville said. “If they can succeed in Vermont, they can succeed in the other 10 bottle bill states.”

Bills related to the bottle bill are:

  1. LD 1324, An Act To Create Consistency and Fairness in Maine’s Bottle Bill, which would exempt beverage containers larger than 28 ounces from the bottle bill and also establish a uniform deposit of 5 cents for all containers.
  2. LD 728, An Act To Reduce Truck Travel Caused by the Bottle Redemption Laws.
  3. LD 900, An Act To Reduce Fraud in Bottle Deposit Redemption.
  4. LD 1063, An Act to Restore Limits on the Location of Licensed Redemption Centers and Improve Operations.
  5. LD 1210, An Act To Exempt Small distributors from Unclaimed Deposit Requirements.

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