By David Abel | Globe Staff | March 24, 2008
Standing over a grocery cart full of empty Budweiser bottles and Coke cans, James Williams walked to a trash barrel outside a South End redemption center, pulled out a few empty plastic water bottles, and shrugged.
"My question is: Why in the world can't you redeem these, when you could if it had bubbles inside?" asked Williams, 63, a Dorchester resident who has spent years rifling through dumpsters, tossing aside countless plastic water and juice bottles. "It makes no sense. We're passing up thousands of dollars. It would help the homeless and empty lots of trash from landfills."
With a staggering proliferation of plastic bottles and declining recycling rates in Massachusetts and nationwide, Williams's question is increasingly asked, and vehemently debated, from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill. The state's 27-year-old bottling law is, according to some lawmakers and environmentalists, woefully out of date. The law allows consumers to redeem 5 cents for bottles and cans of soda, beer, malt beverages, and mineral water, but it doesn't allow for the return of noncarbonated bottles of water, iced tea, juices, or energy drinks, which now account for about one-third of all beverages sold in Massachusetts.
Now, after years of opposition from groups representing retailers, distributors, and beverage companies, state lawmakers are pushing a bill that would expand the law in Massachusetts to cover the other drinks and raise the redemption fee by a nickel to 10 cents to adjust for inflation since the original law passed. Lawmakers pushing the bill say it would improve recycling rates for bottles and cans, and generate more than $50 million in state revenue from uncollected deposits, $15 million more than the current law. With only 11 states having passed bottle-redemption laws like the one in Massachusetts, lawmakers in Congress are considering a similar bill that would allow soda, water, and other beverage bottles to be redeemed in every state.
Between 2002 and 2005, Americans more than doubled the amount of bottled water they drank, from 13 billion bottles to 29.8 billion, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors the recycling of bottles. And that doesn't include the proliferation of drinks such as Snapple, Gatorade, and Red Bull. The institute estimated in 2005 that 144 billion containers, more than one-third of them plastic bottles, ended up in incinerators, landfills, or as litter.
"Not including bottled water in the law is insane," said Representative Alice Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat who sponsored the bill. "That's why we're going to change the law. The legislative process can take a while, but we want action. We know it's the right thing to do."
Massachusetts passed a bottle law in 1981 when lawmakers overrode a veto by Governor Edward J. King. Its goal was to reduce litter, and state officials say it has succeeded.
But with more people drinking bottled water and sports drinks, the state's redemption rates have fallen. Now less than 66 percent of containers in the state are redeemed.
"A lot of people don't drink as much of the Cokes or ginger ales covered by the law, and they get out of the habit," said Janet Domenitz, executive director of Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.
Those who oppose the bills call existing bottle laws a tax that raises the cost of beverages, promotes fraud by encouraging cross-border sales of bottles, and curbs efforts to expand other recycling programs. They argue the state would be better off by encouraging curbside recycling, which now exists in less than half of the state's 351 communities.
The state's overall recycling rate for municipal waste, which includes redeemed bottles, stands at about 37 percent, up from about 10 percent in 1990, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Kevin Dietly, a principal at Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants, called the bill "a bad idea" that lawmakers should reject. "From the environmental and business perspective, there's broader recognition in the recycling industry that these programs really do have detrimental effects on business recycling," Dietly said.
He said the proposed law would cost consumers as much as $83 million per year, raise the price for a case of most beverages on average 30 cents, and would improve the state's recycling rate by less than 1 percent. He added that the additional recycled materials would amount to less than 8 pounds of the 1,770 pounds of trash per person discarded every year.
Officials at the Massachusetts Food Association, which has long opposed bottle laws and paid Dietly's office about $5,000 for his work, called the new bill "outdated, cumbersome, and duplicative." "We don't need to bribe people to do the right thing," said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association. "It makes no sense when you already have the ability to put these things out on the curb. We also shouldn't be bringing trash back to food stores; it's unsanitary."
Proponents of the proposed law say Dietly's arguments are misleading and they argue that the existing law has been an unqualified success that must be expanded to include all the new beverages sold. They call it absurd to suggest that allowing people to redeem deposits on their bottles reduces other recycling efforts. They also rebutted the notion of an expense to the state. They said the existing law generates revenue for the state.
"This program has been a terrific success, and the bill will ensure it thrives in the future," said Representative Martha Walz, a Boston Democrat who cosponsored the new bill, which would allow consumers to redeem about 900 million additional bottles out of more than 3 billion sold. "The more containers we take out of the waste stream, the better." She and others said increasing the deposit fee to 10 cents is necessary because of inflation. But they acknowledge that lawmakers, who have been stymied in previous efforts to expand the bottling law, face a difficult fight from well-financed opponents.
State Senator Michael Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat, and Representative Brian Dempsey, a Haverhill Democrat, who are co-chairmen of the state's Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which last week tabled the bottle bill for further study, said they support the bill's goals but have concerns about costs to consumers and the prospect for increased fraud. They said they want more time to review its potential impact.
Ian A. Bowles, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said Governor Deval Patrick also supports the idea but is "looking at it as part of a review of our recycling and solid waste policy. We haven't been active in the current discussion in the Legislature."
Because of the sluggish response on Beacon Hill, proponents of the bill said they support the federal efforts, at least as a fallback to bolster the state law. Last year, when US Representative Edward J. Markey filed the nationalbottle bill in Congress, he said the proposed law would help recycle some 100 billion bottles around the country that are now either littered or incinerated. He said recycling more plastic bottles would lead to savings in energy and oil consumption, noting that every ton of recycled plastic saves about 685 gallons of oil.
"Bottle bills have succeeded in cleaning up litter in our parks, playgrounds, and streets, and now a national bottle bill would also clean up heat-trapping pollution in our atmosphere," Markey said in a statement.
Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for the US House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said opponents of bottle laws are more concerned about their bottom line. He added that a federal law would remove any arguments about illegally transporting bottles across state lines. Recycled, the 58 billion aluminum cans the nation discards each year would cut carbon emissions by the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road, he added.
"The opponents seem to have determined what the costs are to them, but not necessarily those to the state or to the consumer," he said. "The consumer gets the deposit back and states like Massachusetts that have systems to recover unused deposits actually make money from these bills."
On a recent morning outside the redemption center in the South End, James Wright said he would appreciate the opportunity to make more money. He said he spent about 12 hours sifting through trash in the area for all the beer bottles and soda cans he collected. He estimated he would have doubled his haul if he could have redeemed all the water bottles he found.
"You just throw them back in the dumpster," he said. "There's no sense in taking them. It would be nice if that would change."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org