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2012 Law & Public Policy

The new and improved Bottle Bill: A promising legislative outlook

By Amber Hillman | Download as PDF.  Advocates have tried, and failed, to update the state bottle bill law in every legislative session since 2000. But this year may be different. Proponents cite compromises in the proposed legislation and increasing public support for why the so-called Updated Bottle Bill this year may have its best chance of becoming law. This promises to be a welcome solution to the litter problem that has plagued the Commonwealth, from city streets to small town ballparks.

Since its passage in 1983, the Massachusetts bottle deposit law (BDL) has mandated a five cent deposit on the sale of carbonated beverages. When bottles are returned at supermarkets and redemption centers, the five cents is returned to the consumer. Unredeemed deposits flow into the Commonwealth’s general fund. Statistics from the past 29 years speak to the effectiveness of the state’s BDL: since the law went into effect, over 30 billion containers have been redeemed, contributing to a dramatically healthier environment, and cleaner and safer communities.

Currently, 80 percent of beverage containers covered by the bottle bill are redeemed and recycled, compared to only 22 percent of non-deposit containers. However, consumption of non-carbonated bottled beverages in the Commonwealth has soared, and these beverages – water, iced tea, juice and sports drinks – are not subject to the current law. According to a 2009 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, non-deposit containers account for up to 85 percent of beverage container waste in public trash receptacles in the Commonwealth. The Updated Bottle Bill was crafted in large part to address this issue.

House Bill 890 and Senate Bill 1650 were filed in January of 2011.  The near identical language in the bills would primarily a) expand the bottle bill to include water, sports drinks, flavored teas, juices, and other ‘on the go’ beverages – excepting dairy products; b) reestablish the Clean Environment Fund, using forfeited deposits to improve recycling and other environmental projects, rather than to going into the general fund; and c) exempt certain small beverage dealers from being required to accept empty deposit containers.

There remains a heated debate surrounding this legislation. A recent poll by MassINC showed more than 75 percent of Massachusetts residents are in favor of expanding the bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages; however, powerful interest groups have aligned themselves on each side of the issue – environmental groups and over 200 municipal governments support the bill, while lobbyists representing larger retailers in the Commonwealth oppose it.

Previous attempts to expand the bottle law have died in infancy. This is largely due to concerns over the funds the state stands to gain in the form of uncollected deposits (which opponents argue is a tax on consumers), and because small businesses argue they cannot handle the costs associated with a large increase in the volume of redemptions they would be required to process. By re-establishing the Clean Environment Fund and creating exemptions from the redemption center requirement for “Mom and Pop” businesses, the current proposal addresses many of these concerns; however, political opposition to bottle bill expansion has not been silenced.

The current proposal has the support of the majority of legislators, with proponents coming from both sides of the aisle – including many in leadership positions. The political support was recently evidenced by the unprecedented turnout of supporters at a legislative hearing. Nearly 30 legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, showed up to voice support, along with over 300 citizens. Advocacy groups attribute this turnout to the growing momentum behind this legislation. “In my 30 years [of advocacy], I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen at a hearing,” said Janet Domenitz of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

Advocacy groups have become more organized and skilled in their ability to lobby support over the years – as a result, the bill has the support of a large majority of voters and a substantial number of legislators. The Updated Bottle Bill legislation is a politically viable piece of legislation that would make sound state policy.

Amber Hillman received her J.D. from Suffolk University Law School in May 2012. She received her B.A. in Political Science from Middlebury College in 2005. Prior to law school, she worked in both state and federal government, and served as State Director for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Upon graduation, Amber plans to follow her political passion and pursue a career in public policy or government.

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