Unredeemed empties will fund clean water

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MONTPELIER — In the rush to conclude the legislative session, some unusual decisions get made, and so it was that after months of debate over the state's obligation to fund improvements to water quality, the only bill that passed that provides actual new funding for water quality was the recycling bill.

Under a provision of S.285, starting in 2019, unredeemed bottle deposits, which previously went to beverage companies, will go to the state's clean water fund. The money is not insubstantial, around $2 million a year, said Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG.

One of Vermont's oldest pieces of environmental legislation, the "bottle bill" was enacted in 1972 as an anti-litter law, a means of encouraging consumers to recycle cans and bottles instead of tossing them to the side of the road. For decades Vermont consumers have been paying an extra nickel for every bottle or can of beer and soda purchased — 15 cents for liquor bottles — and getting the money back when they return empty containers to retailers or redemption centers.

But not every bottle or can gets returned, and not every deposit is refunded. The number of unreturned bottles and cans runs into the millions. Until now, beverage companies have been the beneficiaries, a perk of the job — the same companies that deliver beverages to retail outlets also are responsible for collecting and dispensing with the used bottles and cans. In recent years, beverage companies have contracted with TOMRA, a multinational company with offices in Essex, to deal with the empties, according to Andrew MacLean, president of public relations firm MMR.

Environmental advocates like VPIRG have fought for decades to get the state to direct the unclaimed deposits toward environmental programs. Burns said the group's "first choice" would have been to have the funds go to recycling and other waste reduction efforts, but funding clean water was still a victory.

"At the end of the day, it wasn't so vital that the money go to recycling," Burns said. "Iit was more important that we stop giving it to Coca Cola and other beverage manufacturers and distributors ... Unclaimed deposits are really unclaimed money that belongs to Vermonters."

An earlier amendment to the bill, by Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington, did direct the money to the state's waste management programs, but Pollina said directing the unclaimed deposit money to the clean water fund would provide a needed boost to water quality efforts. "It's kind of ironic that this is the only money we sent this year to the clean water fund," he said.

Pollina said he has been pushing for unclaimed deposits to go back to Vermonters since he was elected, eight years ago. "The beverage industry has a fair amount of power in the building, so there was always pushback," he said.

MacLean, whose firm lobbies for trade group Beverage Association of Vermont — Coca Cola, Pepsi and other beverage companies around the state — said the association did oppose the bill for the obvious financial reasons, but he also said that Vermont should focus on streamlining its recycling efforts, rather than continuing to encourage side-by-side recycling programs. The new bottle bill "cements into place" a system that diverts money from solid waste districts, since they are left without the most valuable recyclables — aluminum and high-quality plastic. Bottles and cans — which increasingly are made of aluminium and plastic — are recycled separately from other materials.

"When you look at the nuts and bolts, these two separate systems don't make any sense," said MacLean. Towns and cities — many through multi-municipality solid waste districts — as well as waste management companies have ramped up their recycling programs since the 2012 passage of the state's universal recycling law, which bans the disposal of recyclables including paper, cardboard, cans, glass bottles and plastic containers into landfills. Trash haulers are also required to start collecting recyclables, contributing to the rise of single stream recycling in the state.

Most Vermonters, whether they take their recyclables to a transfer station or use curbside pick-up, now use single stream recycling, said Josh Kelly, head of the state's universal recycling program. Materials recovery facilities (MRF), located in Williston and Rutland, sort most of the state's recyclables, he said. While there are a few transfer stations "sprinkled around the state" that do not use single stream recycling, the Northeast Kingdom is the last region of Vermont where residents have to pre-sort their recyclables, said Kelly.

Michele Morris, communications director for the Chittenden Solid Waste District, confirmed that bottle bill recycling does cut into their bottom line. "The most valuable material in terms of dollars per ton is aluminum cans, but we don't get as much of that as we would because of the bottle bill," she said.

But Morris said a greater problem is dealing with the volume of glass, mostly wine bottles, for which the market isn't strong. Wine bottles are not included in the bottle bill. "Glass is a real problem for us - it's a problem for any recycling facility."

Kelly said he can see "pros and cons" to keeping the bottle bill program separate, and single stream recycling. He said the bottle bill has been effective at getting cans and certain plastics recycled, but there is an inherent inefficiency in having both systems operating. "You do have two trucks - one that's at your curb and one that's at your redemption center," he said.

Kelly added that given the downturn in the recycling market after China banned importation of paper and other recyclables — some of which are too contaminated to recycle — the state plans to focus more efforts on promoting proper recycling etiquette.

"Something can't be made into a new product unless it's clean and the manufacturer of the product will accept it," he said.

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