State lawmakers are deep in the decision-making process over how best to change container deposit programs said to be outdated, inconvenient or not performing efficiently.
Of the 10 U.S. states with bottle bills, only Connecticut has made a significant change recently: Last year it raised the redemption rate to 10 cents and added more types of containers to the program. Oregon’s governor last week signed into law a small bottle bill expansion to include canned wine in its program.
Reloop, an environmental nonprofit, is among the groups advocating for updated bottle bills. It recently released a report projecting the impact certain models could have on five Northeastern states. It's advocating for beverage industry-financed models with a 10-cent deposit that accept a broader range of containers and have easily-accessible bottle return sites. Elizabeth Balkan, director of Reloop North America, said the data shows that “minor tweaks” to existing state programs would increase overall program participation and raise redemption rates to 90% or more.
“We know the systems are already in place, but they're not meeting their potential. They all need updates and modernization to capture the full benefits, both environmental and economic, that these systems are capable of,” she said.
Lawmakers in Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa and California are all racing the legislative clock to debate and potentially change their bills, but each bill faces a variety of legislative hurdles due to competing interests among the beverage industry, MRF operators and environmentalists.
Massachusetts supporters aim to build consensus
Proponents in Massachusetts are optimistic that this session’s bottle bill update may be the one to pass, in part because the bill now has support from at least 81 state legislators in both the state Senate and the House of Representatives.
H.3289 and its companion bill, S.2149, sponsored by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Cynthia Creem, would increase container deposits from five to 10 cents and would expand the list of accepted containers to include most types of beverage containers, including “nips,” or miniature liquor bottles. The measure is currently before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Massachusetts has long needed an update to its bottle bill, first written in 1983, to reflect the types of containers actually on the market, said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, which supports the bill. “Every year more types of single use beverage containers come on to the market, and as a result every year there’s more litter and waste,” she said in a statement. The Reloop report estimates the bill update could remove up to 17 million “nips” from disposal.
The bill isn’t without its critics. Some retailers and distributors worry the bill doesn’t do enough to help them manage the containers, particularly because the bill does not specifically call for raising the handling fee that distributors pay. The Massachusetts Package Stores Association advocated for increasing handling fees to help them manage a larger volume of containers, The Sun Chronicle reported. Distributors currently pay a 2.25-cent handling fee per container to retailers and a 3.25-cent fee to redemption centers. The current bill language calls for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to “review” handling fees within one year of the bill’s passage and every four years thereafter.
The state currently has at least 40 redemption centers and over 1,100 retail locations, “and we want those all to be expanded and have more of those locations and make sure that people are paid well,” said Kirstie Pecci, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project, which supports the bill.
Massachusetts' formal legislative session ends July 31.
Heated debate expected in Vermont bottle bill battle
Supporters and opponents of Vermont’s container deposit legislation are expecting an intense debate as the latest bill to amend it moves through committee.
The bill, H. 175, sponsored by Rep. James McCullough, would significantly expand the state’s bottle bill by covering the containers for almost all beverages, including water, wine, sports drinks and hard cider. The bill also aims to increase handling fees for non-commingled containers in redemption centers to between 3.5 cents and 5 cents per container. The bill passed the House last year, and it is now before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
Vermont has “an amazing opportunity to expand the bottle bill, with tremendous popular support,” said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute. However, they need even stronger support from the Senate to help avoid a veto if the bill passes, according to Paul Burns, executive director for VPIRG. That’s because Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has close ties to the waste industry, particularly major state hauler Casella Waste Systems, he said.
Casella has historically opposed the bill. Casella Vice President Joe Fusco recently told local news station WCAX that the bill updates could hurt curbside recycling by removing valuable materials from that stream, making curbside recycling more expensive for residents. Gov. Scott added in the story that the financial impact the bill could have on consumers could be untimely because of recent inflation.
Representatives of the beverage industry also oppose the bill. Bree Dietly, principal for Breezeway Consulting, speaking as a representative of the Beverage Association of Vermont, said the industry does not support the bill as written, “but we do see a path to expanding the bottle bill,” she testified in a committee hearing March 18.
Vermont's legislative session ends May 20.
Grocers ask to opt out of Iowa redemption program
Iowa’s legislature has several fast-changing versions of container deposit bills in the mix this year, but SF 2378 has come the farthest so far by passing the Senate on Tuesday. The bill would increase reimbursement to redemption centers from one cent per container to three cents, a move supported by redemption centers, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reports. The bill does not propose raising the deposit, which currently is five cents.
It also contains a controversial provision that would allow certain retailers, like grocers and convenience stores, to opt out of taking back empty containers and paying the deposits by as early as July 1, 2023. Some local stores say the process of collecting the containers can be too messy and time-consuming, Radio Iowa reported, but many Democratic lawmakers, along with some recycling advocates, say the provision would seriously damage the state program.
Sen. Jason Schultz said tripling the handling fee will help redemption centers hire more employees and ease the backlog of cans piling up at several locations. This will take the pressure off grocers, who see the redemption process as “dirty, sometimes disgusting,” he said in a recent op-ed. If the bill passes, “I believe we will see more locations pop up as redemption companies now have a solid profit motive to get their hands on as many cans as possible.”
But CRI opposes the opt-out provision, saying it will hinder Iowans’ access to the redemption program instead of helping it grow. “We think 95% of return locations would go away and consumers would be in the lurch,” Collins said. The remaining locations would also have to handle a bigger volume of containers, and residents might need to drive farther to find an open location, she added.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources lists 121 deposit return centers that are not grocers, but stakeholders have said the number of active locations could be between 60 and 100. DNR notes that some of its registered locations might have “closed without notifying the Iowa DNR.”
It’s not clear how much momentum the Senate bill will have before the state’s legislative session ends April 19. The House has its own version of the bill, HF 2571, which would also allow some retailers to opt out of the program and would raise handling fees to two cents. The House had scheduled to debate the bill Tuesday, but pulled it from the calendar after the Senate passed its version, the Des Moines Register reported.
House Speaker Pat Grassley has said he wants to see the container deposit system updated after years of failed efforts.
Multiple bills in play in California
In California, six bills related to the state’s container deposit system are in play, but only a few have garnered much attention so far this year. It's been a multiyear effort to fix the state's bottle bill, considered by some to be one of the more broken systems in the country.
One contender is AB 1454, which aims to increase payments to recycling centers for a set amount of containers each month and to establish a bottle bill advisory board to advise CalRecycle. The board would include representation from a recycler, a waste hauler, a reclaimer, a beverage manufacturer and local governments. Proponents say the bill will stabilize funding for redemption centers to better reflect recycling costs.
Collins calls AB 1454 “a big bill in terms of dollars,” but CRI considers the bill a “poison pill” because of a provision that would allow some of the state’s convenience zones, or areas requiring a location for residents to return containers, to merge into a single regional zone. CRI says merging the zones would hurt the redemption infrastructure and force residents to venture farther to find a place to redeem containers.
“Our redemption infrastructure already suffered blows due to historical underpayments to redemption centers, and we have already lost about half of the centers, with not much to fall back on,” Collins said.
Another bill still in play is SB 38, which would require beverage container distributors to form a stewardship organization to handle the state’s bottle deposit program. The bill failed to move forward last year, but it has now been reintroduced to the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee for further discussion. According to the most recent bill analysis, from June 2021, opposing the bill were many of the state's largest recyclers and key trade groups, including Republic Services, Waste Connections, WM, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, the California Waste & Recycling Association and the California Waste Haulers Council. However, the state CRV program is unique in compensating MRF operators, which trade groups such as NWRA support.
California is also reckoning with bottle bill accounting discrepancies after the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the program had at least $100 million more in its coffers than it initially reported to the public and lawmakers. Sen. Bob Wieckowski, the sponsor of SB 38 and chair of the budget subcommittee on environmental protection, has been a vocal critic of the state’s current bottle recycling system. He called a March 2 oversight hearing to raise concerns over how CalRecycle runs the bottle bill program.
Some recycling advocates, including Collins, have said CalRecycle has underreported the surplus for years as the bottle redemption rate decreased and recycling centers closed, leaving fewer locations for residents to get their deposits back. CalRecycle director Machi Wagoner has said the department has been working to resolve the accounting problem and provide more prompt updates.
“I’m irked that there’s so much money in the fund and we didn’t know it or we try to minimize it,” Wieckowski said during the hearing. “The public demands better performance from this program — or get a different program.”
California's legislative session ends Aug. 31.