Why You Should Support Updating the Bottle Bill

A recent statewide petition drive, supported in Wellesley by the local League of Women Voters, Sustainable Wellesley, and the Wellesley High School Green Team, is aiming to introduce a Massachusetts ballot question that would update the current state bottle deposit law.  In Wellesley, local environmental groups successfully gathered roughly 1500 signatures that were submitted to the town clerk for verification.

The original legislation, passed in 1982 as the “Beverage Container Recovery Law,” places a five cent deposit on all cans and bottles of soft drinks and malt beverages.  Consumers can redeem the deposits at designated locations, such as grocery stores, and receive a refund.  The containers are then recycled.

The purpose of the law is to increase the rate at which bottles and cans are recycled and therefore reduce damage to the environment caused by litter, much of which consists of bottles and cans.  Statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) show that the law is extremely effective at achieving this.  Roughly 80% of deposit bottles are recycled – a recycling rate that MassDEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell says is well above the national average (only nine other states have bottle deposit legislation).

However, since the 1980s, numerous new bottled and canned beverages have come on the market.  Nowadays, sports drinks, bottled water, teas, and juices line the shelves of grocery stores alongside soda and beer.  “New age” beverages now make up about 40% of all drinks consumed in Massachusetts.  Consumers, lacking the incentive offered by a deposit, recycle the bottles and cans these drinks come in at less than half the rate of those covered by the current deposit law.

The governor, the Department of Environmental Protection, and most Massachusetts residents agree that the Bottle Bill should be expanded to cover all bottled and canned beverages. Expanding the bill should result in increased recycling of all bottles and cans not already covered, and therefore cause a dramatic increase in total recycling rates.  However, the proposed expansion has been met with opposition, primarily from the beverage industry.

Opponents of the bottle bill argue that an expanded deposit law would cost the state money, raise beverage prices, reduce consumers’ choice of beverages at stores, and place burdens on retailers who will need to expand their bottle reclamation infrastructure.  Some also argue that the deposit is tantamount to a tax increase.

Studies, however, strongly refute all of these claims.  An analysis of the benefits of expanding the law by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs found that by decreasing the amount of waste being placed in the trash, municipal garbage disposal costs could be reduced by $500,000 to $2.3 million statewide.  The analysis also projected that municipalities across the state would collectively be able to raise an additional $900,000, not to mention the roughly $500,000 saved through avoided litter removal costs.  All in all, the report concluded that cities and towns across the state would save $4.2 to $6.9 million annually.

There is also no evidence that beverage prices or consumer choice would be affected.  An investigation by MassDEP into the matter studied trends in other states to assess this claim.  Prices of beverages from New Hampshire, which has no deposit law, were compared to prices in Maine, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, which have deposit laws (in fact, Maine and Connecticut have expanded deposit laws such as the one proposed in Massachusetts).  The investigators found no meaningful differences in prices between the states, regardless of the differences in the laws.  They also conducted studies of beverage variety in Maine, which found that the choices of beverages in stores had nothing to do with the deposit law (there was actually more variety in Maine), and was instead related, understandably, to the size of the store.

The investigation also found that bottle reclamation infrastructure is currently underused, so an increase in the amount of bottle and cans being handled should not be an issue.  Additionally, those who claim the deposit is a “tax” seem to overlook the fact that the deposit can be easily reclaimed, and does not raise revenue for the state.

Updating the bottle bill clearly has significant benefits not only for the environment, but for towns and cities as well.  This bill is truly a win-win – it promotes increased recycling and decreases litter, but it also saves money on municipal waste disposal and litter removal and should raise much needed funds in these difficult economic times for local governments which are always strapped for cash.  All this comes without a negative impact on the economy.  Quite the opposite is true – the increase in the amount of recycled bottles and cans expected under an expanded bottle bill should create more jobs in the recycling sector.  In a time when our economy is recovering from recession, this bill is an excellent way to promote sustainable practice in our state, while being mindful of the financial pressures at hand.

(Keenan Ashbrook)

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