Too soon for return of returnables? Some think so.

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DALTON — Beverage container recycling is back too soon, the leader of Massachusetts package stores says, posing needless risks to people in a landscape still smoldering from the coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, a prominent store owner in the region says fears of infection are just one problem on a list of issues with the state-mandated program. Environmentalists, on the other hand, continue the push for legislation that includes more types of containers.

The state Department of Environmental Protection unveiled a two-phase plan this month to resume enforcing bottle and can redemption at package stores and other retailers, after pausing the program in mid-March due to the pandemic.

"We're creating a risk by enforcing the program and forcing people to handle these materials needlessly," said Robert Mellion, executive director of the Massachusetts Package Store Association.

Mellion detailed his concerns about the safety of resuming redemption in a letter to DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg and again in a virtual hearing with DEP officials and other industry representatives at the end of May. Against Mellion's judgment, the agency resumed enforcement June 5 for stores using reverse vending machines and, as of Friday, for stores doing over-the-counter returns.

DEP reply

On Thursday, Suuberg responded to Mellion's letter. He said the DEP recognizes these are "challenging times" and that "the safety of essential workers and the public is of the highest priority."

Suuberg echoed the safety precautions outlined in the DEP's initial announcement. Customers and employees engaged in redemption activities, it said, should adhere to social distancing practices, including wearing masks and gloves, using disinfectant and frequently washing hands.

John Kelly, owner of Kelly's Package Store in Dalton, was among the stores in Berkshire County that stopped accepting returnables out of fear of contamination before the DEP announced that it would suspend enforcement. Kelly was ahead of the state's orders this time, too. His store began accepting recyclables again in late May.

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"We had so many customers who needed help," Kelly said. "They were inundated with empties."

In addition to the requirements outlined by the state, Kelly's staff sprays each container with disinfectant in an attempt to ensure that the containers are virus-free.

Kelly said that accepting containers at his store is good "social redemption," but notes that, financially, the program does little for him. Redemption centers get a handling fee of 3.25 cents per container, and retailers get 2.25 cents. The fee for redemption centers hasn't gone up since 2013; for retailers, it ha been over 20 years since the fee changed.

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The low payoff and extra expenses now required to safely do redemption, coupled with the rising minimum wage, have affected Kelly's bottom line. He estimated that the program hasn't been profitable for him in nearly five years.

The fee for not complying with the bill is $1,000 per violation.

"I think there's going to be pushback," Kelly said. "You can't mandate us to lose money."

In addition to what the industry views as a low handling fee, Mellion pointed to a pattern of tardiness from the third-party companies that lease reverse-vending machines to retailers and then retrieve containers from the machines. That ha been a problem, Mellion said, that the DEP is supposed to address.

Mellion said he receives complaints about late pickups from his members more than once a week. At times, redeemed containers have sat for as long as eight weeks waiting to be picked up.

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Kelly and Mellion stress that they are not looking to end the "bottle bill" that mandates returns. Rather, Mellion said, the state needs to "address the logistics" before a more expansive bill is considered.

"It's one thing to make environmental policy," Mellion said. "It's another to make environmental policy work."

MASSPIRG goal

Among the environmental groups pushing the state for an updated bottle bill is the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MASSPIRG. As of now, the beverage container deposit only applies to beer, malt beverages, carbonated soft drinks and mineral water.

MASSPIRG has been angling for a provision that would apply the deposit to water and sports drink containers, if the recycling rate of those beverages doesn't come close to the rate of redeemable containers brought back.

Janet Domenitz, the group's executive director, pointed to research conducted by the Container Recycling Institute that found that the recycling rate in states with beverage container deposits is over double the rate in states without the rules.

"Given the challenges that we are faced with right now, the less litter and trash we have to pick up, the better off we all are," Domenitz said.

Caroline White can be reached at cwhite@berkshireeagle.com or at 563-513-1065.


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