Advocates renew plans to expand bottle bill

·3 min read

Sep. 14—BOSTON — Several years after failing at the ballot box, a proposal to update the state's 5-cent "bottle bill" has resurfaced on Beacon Hill, where environmental and consumer advocates are pushing again to expand the decades-old law.

A new proposal heard by the Legislature's Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy on Monday would increase the deposit on cans and bottles from 5 to 10 cents and include other plastic and glass containers for wine, hard cider, water and sports drinks, as well as miniature liquor bottles called "nips."

Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said the country is getting "buried" under single-use plastic bottles and other waste.

She said the problem has gotten worse during the pandemic.

"It's never been more urgent to do everything we can to reduce what we use, set a goal of zero waste, and create a more sustainable society," she told the panel.

The proposals are backed by more than 40 lawmakers including Reps. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill and Tram Nguyen, D-Andover.

A similar, bipartisan proposal also heard by the committee on Monday, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, would extend the bottle deposit for wine and liquor bottles but would exclude dairy products and juice drinks.

A bill filed by Rep. Michelle Ciccolo, D-Lexington, would require plastic manufacturers to incrementally increase the amount of materials they recycle.

Bob Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Stores Association, told lawmakers that his organization isn't standing in the way of the latest push to expand the bottle bill, but it wants handling fees charged by retailers to increase to cover the cost of recycling bottles, cans and other containers.

"We support a bottle bill expansion, with some key issues being addressed," Mellion said during Monday's livestreamed hearing. "These user fees haven't been increased since the advent of the bottle bill."

Massachusetts is one of 10 states — including Maine, Connecticut and Vermont — with deposit laws. The Bay State's bottle deposit was enacted in 1983 and allows redemption centers to deduct processing fees from refunds.

Supermarkets have long argued that the bottle deposit is cumbersome and costly for retailers and drives business across the border to New Hampshire, the only New England state without a deposit for bottles and cans.

Lawmakers were unable to reach consensus on a proposal to expand the bottle deposit law in 2014 despite widespread, mostly Democratic support. Instead, the question was left to voters in November 2014.

A coalition of beverage companies and supermarkets spent more than $9 million fighting the referendum, which called for expanding the bottle bill to include containers filled with non-carbonated beverages. The measure was crushed like a can, with 70% of voters rejecting it.

Gov. Charlie Baker hasn't weighed in on the issue, but state environmental officials say the bottle bill has proven effective.

More than 80% of the cans and bottles with a 5-cent deposit are being recycled statewide, while only 23% of containers with no bottle deposit are being recycled, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@northofboston.com

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