Stateline Story

'Bottle Bills' Draw Renewed Interest in Legislatures

  • November 04, 2011
  • By Jim Malewitz

So-called "bottle bills" are making a comeback at a time of growing green sensitivity. Familiar in much of the country a generation ago, they establish a small consumer deposit on beverage purchases, then allow purchasers to return the containers to a store or public facility for recycling in exchange for a refund on the deposit.

Although ten states currently have such legislation on the books, there has been little action in recent years, due in part to opposition from the beverage industry, which says the system disrupts sales and creates higher prices. But this year has been different. Bills related to the bottle issue — including some that would expand existing laws to include more kinds of containers- have surfaced in 23 states. Only one state — Delaware — has repealed a bottle law in recent years.

"We've seen more activity than we've ever seen," says Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute , a nonprofit based in California that tracks bottle bill legislation.

State Representative Mark McCullough, an Oklahoma Republican, is promoting a bottle bill in his state in part to reduce litter and in part to lower costs for local glass packaging plants. Oklahomans recycle just 4 percent of the roughly 2.4 billion beverage containers sold in the state each year, and Oklahoma's 41 landfills are rapidly reaching capacity. In the ten states that place deposits on bottles — usually 5 cents apiece — recycling rates hover around 80 percent, and environmental officials say that litter along streets and highways is reduced.

Backers of the bottle bill movement contend that support for the legislation runs high in states where it is measured; Tennesseans, for instance, registered 83 percent support in a 2009 poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University. In addition, supporters say that the impact on retail prices is negligible. A study of five states conducted this year by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection found that deposits "have no discernible effect" on prices and could save the state's municipalities $7 million per year in combined trash collection and disposal.

Nevertheless, substantial opposition remains. Kevin Dietly, a consultant for Massachusetts-based Northbridge Environmental, which represents the beverage industry,recently told Oklahoma legislatorsthat bottle deposit programs are expensive to operate. Additionally, most grocers oppose bottle laws on the grounds that they place burdens on employees to store and sort through the returned bottles. One way to meet that objection might be to set up independent redemption centers, relieving groceries and convenience stores of collection responsibility. This approach is being proposed in Oklahoma and Tennessee.Advocates claim the centers can be funded by money from unclaimed deposits and from re-selling of the used bottles. Carpet manufacturers, for example, make use of recycled bottles, and they tend to support bottle bill efforts.

Dietly and critics of bottle bills say that the potential for redemption fraud makes it hard for states to project how much revenue unclaimed deposits will generate. The beverage industryrecently pointedtoa couple's alleged attempts tocash in $10,000 worth of out-of-state containers in Maine. Toprevent fraud, Michigan recently passed a billrequiring manufacturers to provide unique markings to beverage containers to be sold in the state.InMarch, the American Beverage Association filed a lawsuit against the state.