September 21, 2018
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Maine should leave the bottle bill alone

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Bottles of Mr. Boston Coffee Flavored Brandy displayed at an Ellsworth supermarket.

Maine’s bottle redemption program turns 40 this year, marking four decades of rewarding responsible consumers with small, 5- or 15-cent refunds when they redeem the beverage containers they’ve accrued over time.

It is one of the most comprehensive and successful of such programs in the country. Maine consumers recycle more beverage containers per capita than consumers in any other state through the program that took effect in January 1978. The prospect of earning back a 5- or 15-cent deposit acts as a powerful incentive to keep litter off the roadside and to recycle. Mainers redeem 80 to 90 percent of the 950 million beverage containers they buy each year that are covered by the state’s bottle bill.

That’s an impressive rate of success, especially when compared with Maine’s overall recycling rate of 36.8 percent — a figure that hasn’t really budged in recent years, even though state law once set out a goal of Maine recycling 50 percent of its solid waste by 2009. (Lawmakers have since amended that law to set 2021 as the target year for 50 percent recycling.)

The success hasn’t prevented attempts to chip away at the bill. Maine’s Legislature has twice rejected a proposal in recent years — once in 2015 and again in 2017 — to remove larger bottles from the program. In a sign that the policy’s popularity persists, the Legislature last year even expanded the redemption program, overcoming a veto from Gov. Paul LePage to cover small liquor bottles known as nips — which increasingly litter the roadside — with a 5-cent deposit.

This winter, there’s an attempt — supported by the beverage industry — to scale back the deposit side of the bottle bill.

LD 1703 targets the larger, 15-cent bottle deposits on wine and spirits containers larger than the 50-milliliter nips size. The bill, sponsored by Assistant House Republican Leader Ellie Espling of New Gloucester, would lower the 15-cent deposit to no more than 5 cents — the same level as all other beverage containers covered by the bottle bill.

Beverage industry representatives who testified in support of the legislation said the change would bring about “equal marketplace treatment” for spirits and wine containers. The deposit change, they said, would eliminate confusion among consumers and retailers, leave more money in customers’ pockets, and make Maine’s state beverage portfolio more competitive with neighboring New Hampshire’s. There wouldn’t be a risk of increased roadside litter, proponents said, because beverage containers currently make up only a small percentage of litter in Maine, with spirits and wine containers an even smaller subset of that litter.

The problem is, well, there’s no apparent problem with Maine’s beverage redemption program as it operates now that needs fixing. By changing the bottle bill without a clear rationale, the state would run the risk of upsetting what is probably the most successful policy Maine has that actually motivates people to recycle.

There has to be a demonstrable reason to tinker with a policy that’s been working well for decades and is even adapting to the times with the recent addition of nips containers. Maine lawmakers would do best to, as they’ve done before, leave the bottle bill alone.

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