Capitol Notebook: Trying to break Maine’s bottle bill

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A few weeks ago, several middle-school students holding a bottle drive arrived at my doorstep to raise money for their sports team. Fortunately, I had a full bag to give them.

Bottle drives, redemption centers, and the bottles that are left out on trash pickup night for folks to take and redeem have been a reliable part of the Maine landscape for 37 years. The bottle bill, which mandates a cash deposit on almost all beverage containers, has been in Maine since 1978, and is one of the most popular laws ever enacted.

Its genius is a dual accomplishment. The law created jobs at the redemption centers where bottles can be redeemed for cash, and extra income for bottle gatherers, while diminishing roadside litter. The redemption centers employ 1,200 people across the state, according to a 2011 estimate.

So far, the law has withstood a barrage of attacks from beverage distributors, who don’t like to pay to retrieve the bottles from redemption centers. In 2011, the Legislature considered several bills, including ones to repeal the bill entirely, and also to remove the 15-cent deposit on wine bottles.

This year’s effort is LD 1204, a rollback of the bottle bill backed by the LePage administration that would remove the larger containers, over 32 ounces, from the redemption process. Consumers would no longer pay a deposit on those larger bottles, or be able to redeem them at a recycling center. Instead, the bottles could go into a town’s general trash collection program, or possibly recycling, or reappear by the side of the road.

As a sweetener in this bill, the beverage distributors, which would no longer have to pay to process the larger bottles, would subsidize for six years a fund run by the Department of Environmental Protection for projects to improve Maine’s 40 percent recycling rate. That amount over six years could be $2.2 million, but contributions would cease after that.

Redemption center owners condemned the proposal at a public hearing last week of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

“My business will die,” said Ben Redman, owner of Machias Little Redemption. He said if the larger containers were no longer redeemable, his business would have lost $157 last week, and the state would only receive $23.

Sandra Marks, owner of South Portland Redemption Center, predicted a drop of 30 percent in containers, and a resulting loss of $40,000 annually to her business. Marks also said that if larger containers are removed, there could be a drop in overall recycling because consumers might no longer make the effort to redeem a smaller number of eligible bottles.

Under LD 1204, the money that bottlers would put into the state recycling fund would be overseen by a council, appointed by the governor, that would include representatives from the state Chamber of Commerce, the non-alcoholic beverage industry, county commissioners and food wholesalers, as well as representatives from conservation and environmental organizations.

In other words, a governor who seems to dislike state bureaucracy would create another one.

As an alternative, some opponents suggest that the state use the $1.8 million the state collects annually in unclaimed deposit money, which now sits in the general fund, and put it toward recycling improvements.

LD 1204 would be a $6.8 million bonanza for the distributors, in the money they would no longer pay to collect the larger bottles over the six-year period. But the hit taken by the redemption centers and the unknown damage to the state’s most successful recycling program hardly seems worth the price.

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Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.