Expanding the Bottle Bill Makes Environmental and Economic Sense

With November 4th fast approaching, opponents of Question 2 have let loose a litany of misinformation and misleading claims in an attempt to thwart attempts by Massachusetts voters to finally modernize our bottle deposit law.

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 the MassDEP 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. Only 23% of these bottles are recycled. They litter our streets, parks, and forests.

Unfortunately, numerous corporations and industry special interests, including the American Beverage Association, have poured $8 million into a campaign to defeat the bottle bill expansion. They claim that expanding the bottle bill is unnecessary due to increased access to curbside recycling. They also say it would be expensive, and would increase beverage prices.

Their claim that 90% of Massachusetts residents have access to curbside recycling (apparently making deposits unnecessary) has by now been widely discredited, not least by The Boston Globe, and the real number is closer to 67%. Regardless, curbside recycling has nothing to do with reducing litter–you’re not going to be able to use it if you aren’t at home.

Studies strongly refute all of their other claims. An analysis of the benefits of expanding the law by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs found no evidence that beverage prices would be affected. 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 deposits. Another claim–that the deposit will automatically increase–is a distortion of a provision in the bill that allows the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs to adjust the deposit for inflation every five years. As the deposit will start at 5¢, and the rate of inflation has recently been around 1-4% per year, this is an infinitesimal change.

The investigation also found that bottle reclamation infrastructure is currently underused, so an increase in the amount of bottles and cans being handled should not require companies to spend large sums to increase their reclamation capacity. The handling fees on bottles and cans (about 3¢ each) are not borne by consumers, and are a minor expense to large national bottlers and supermarket chains.

A bottle bill expansion would in fact be the opposite of expensive–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 per year statewide. The DEP analysis also projected that municipalities across the state would collectively be able to annually raise an additional $900,000 by redeeming the deposits on the recyclables they collect through their recycling programs (including curbside pickup, which is not mutually exclusive), not to mention the roughly $500,000 in annual savings 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 every year.

A more outlandish claim floating around is that the bill is an underhanded tax increase by state lawmakers. First of all, this is a ballot initiative–the question was put on the ballot by the citizens of Massachusetts–after lawmakers failed to act. Moreover, this is simply not a tax. You can’t go to the IRS and ask for all of your money back. The deposit is fully refundable.

Despite what the critics have to say, updating the bottle bill clearly has significant benefits not only for the environment, but also makes economic sense. This bill is truly a win-win–it would allow state and local governments to spend fewer of your tax dollars, all while promoting sustainable practice in our state without adverse economic effects.

(Keenan Ashbrook)

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