Commentary: New bottle bill doesn't add up

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DALTON >> In his op-ed column of May 12, Big Y store manager Rick Bossie touts Senate Bill 646 as a way to improve recycling in Massachusetts by repealing our state's bottle bill and replacing it with a one-cent fee on beverage containers that would feed into a state fund meant to make grants to recycling programs and fund litter abatement programs.

Bossie claims that a similar law in Delaware led to that state increasing its recycling rate from 33 percent in 2010 to 42 percent. What he doesn't tell you is that Delaware was at the bottom of the pack when it implemented this law — having the lowest rate of access to curbside recycling in the United States: 17 percent. By contrast, Massachusetts is a national leader: 64 percent of households across the Commonwealth already have curbside recycling.

He also didn't mention that Delaware's relatively weak container deposit law not only exempted non-carbonated beverages, but exempted aluminum cans. Nor did he mention that a huge proportion of the increase in recycled tonnage was due to new organic waste composting programs that were spurred by separate enabling legislation, or that about half of the recycling gains came from the commercial sector, not the residential sector.

Mandatory illegal

Most importantly, he didn't mention that the Delaware law made universal recycling mandatory. We cannot do this in Massachusetts. Since the passage of Prop 2½ which prohibits unfunded local mandates, state recycling officials have sought numerous workarounds, including intermittently-enforced waste bans. It was Delaware's mandated recycling provision, not their 4-year, 4-cent recycling fee, that spurred the state to institute more curbside recycling.

The amount of grant funding in Delaware was promised to be $22 million, but only $7.5 million has been given out so far, and more than half has been given to private waste haulers, not "cities and towns." The advisory committee members in Delaware even chose to give money to companies that they worked for.

The container deposit law in Massachusetts has been a resounding success for 33 years. While the 2014 redemption rate of 59 percent is not as high as the 65 percent of several years prior, the addition of approximately 10 percent in recycled containers through curbside programs make the total recycling rate for beverage containers in Massachusetts hover around 70 percent.

There is not a single non-deposit state in this nation that achieves beverage container recycling rates anywhere close to this rate. In fact, the average beverage container recycling rate in the nation's 40 non-deposit states is 30 percent, less than half of the average of 64 percent in the nation's bottle bill states.

By removing the 5-cent incentive for consumers and others to take bottles and cans in for redemption, repealing the state's successful bottle bill will not only drive beverage container recycling rates down, but will have the unintended consequence of encouraging litter to skyrocket.

In his op-ed, Mr. Bossie did not note that about a third of all beverages purchased are now consumed away from home: at the office, at the mall, in the car, walking down the street, in a park or a ball field or at the beach. The simple nickel provides a financial incentive for people to collect these discarded containers and bring them in for recycling. Anyone who has noted how many more water bottles — lacking a deposit — are littered in comparison to beer or soda cans, will realize that trashing the deposit system will lead to a trashing of our landscape.

The bottle bill was originally designed as an anti-litter measure, and it's performed extremely well at this task at no public expense. Under deposit recycling, the food and beverage industry, not the taxpayer, pays to run the recycling programs. These industries want to be relieved of their responsibility so that they can increase their profits and shift expenses to taxpayers.

There will simply not be enough money generated by H646 to fund a huge re-tooling of recycling programs (with single stream toter carts and other equipment), and to fund tens of thousands of public-space recycling bins and untold amounts of litter cleanup activities.

And what happens after the 1-cent fee sunsets after 3 years? There are no provisions for replacement funding of any kind. The beverage industry would then be off the hook , and cities and towns across Massachusetts would have to foot the entire bill for both recycling collection and litter cleanup.

S646 is a bad bill meant to relieve the food and beverage industries of their corporate responsibility to manage the hundreds of thousands of tons of bottles and cans discarded annually in Massachusetts. While the bottle bill is not a perfect mechanism and could certainly stand some structural changes to improve efficiency, throwing out the baby with the bath water by repealing the law altogether is not the way to do it.

If the beverage and grocery industries want a more efficient system in Massachusetts, they should look to their colleagues in Oregon and Michigan, where the beverage and grocery industries have cooperated to modernize their bottle bill systems.

Jenny Gitlitz is a consultant to the national non-profit Container Recycling Institute, and the author of the CRI report, "Bottled Up (2000-2010) — Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates."


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