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Friday, March 31, 2023

Will a bottle bill reduce trash?

Bottle Bill Debate Returns to Rhode Island

By Mary Lhowe / ecoRI News contributor

Our clocks have sprung forward; the crocuses are popping up; and people are trekking to the Statehouse to argue about roadside litter, plastic pollution, and the most recent bottle bill to appear before the General Assembly. It must be March in Rhode Island.

The House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources held a long hearing last week that included at least four bills pertaining to litter and how to combat it. Not surprisingly, the longest and most emotional testimony was over a beverage container deposit-and-return bill.

Residents complained heatedly about the carpet of bottles and cans that pave the roadsides and beaches all around the state and argued that a bottle deposit-and-return system — which exists in 10 other states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut — would be the only effective solution.

Owners of liquor stores and food and convenience stores acknowledged the litter problem, but said a deposit-and-return system would unleash a devastating blow on their businesses, mainly because of the cost and trouble of managing the returns and refunds.

Individuals and groups submitted 142 written comments in advance of the hearing, which also included some bills, barely touched in the four-hour discussion, about bans on per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), sometimes called “forever chemicals;” limits on use of mercury in products; and labeling of non-flushable wipes. But the bottle bill was the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

Bills related to trash and trash solutions that were discussed March 23 included:

H5502, the Beverage Container Deposit Recycling Act of 2023, would create a system for the recycling of beverage containers under control of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Lead sponsor is Rep. Carol Hagan McEntee, D-South Kingstown.

The similar H6054, the Miniature Alcoholic Beverage Container Act Of 2023, would create a refundable 25-cent deposit for miniature alcoholic beverage containers, or “nips.” Lead sponsor is Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick.

H5091, Extended Producer Responsibility for Packaging, would establish a program whereby producers are responsible to help pay for disposal of packaging and to ultimately reduce the amount of unrecyclable packaging that their products bring into Rhode Island. Lead sponsor is Bennett.

H5090, Disposable Food Service Containers, prohibits some establishments from providing food or beverages in containers made of polystyrene foam, which is Styrofoam. Lead sponsor is Bennett.

H5672, Single-Use Plastic Straws, requires that food service establishments provide single-use utensils and standard condiments to customers only upon request. Lead sponsor is Rep. Michelle McGaw, D-Portsmouth.

Regarding the bottle bill, McEntee said she has introduced bottle bills are least four times and previous efforts to pass such a bill go back decades. She said this year is her target to pass the bill, which includes some new provisions to reduce objections by the beverage industry. Speakers from the Zero Waste Coalition, a group of environmentalists, also stated at a Statehouse rally this month that they are determined to pass the bill this year.

Bennett’s H6054, which would apply a deposit-and-return system specifically to nips — one-serving liquor bottles — follows Bennett’s unsuccessful effort in 2022 to ban nips entirely. Bennett’s current bill also would require beverage distributors to redesign nips bottles to make them at least 2 inches square, a size that might allow them to be captured in sorting machines at the state’s materials recycling facility at the Central Landfill in Johnston.

Bennett said he would agree to have his nips bill folded into the larger bottle bill, provided the bill included his 2-inch-square size requirement.

Bottle bills are a form of extended producer responsibility, meaning that producers of products bear some expense and labor to collect and dispose of their products after they are used up. The bottle bill would require beverage distributors to collect empty containers from every product they distribute in Rhode Island, and to pay a handling fee of 3.5 cents per container to stores or redemption centers to which empties would be returned by consumers and retrieved by distributors.

Under the bill, beverage distributors would add a dime to the price of each bottle and can. Retailers would pass that fee along to customers. When customers return the empty container, they would get the dime back. In turn, distributors would pick up and carry away all the empties and reimburse a dime per container to retailers, or, alternately, to independent, freestanding  redemption centers.

“The time has come to do this,” McEntee said. “We cannot just sit here, stagnant, which is what we have been doing.” Referring to arguments over proposed bottle bills of past years, she said, “I have asked everyone to join me at the table and tell me how to address this problem but all I have heard is ‘no.’ I have yet to hear a solution.”

McEntee estimated that a surplus of $60 million in unclaimed deposits would accrue to DEM, which would manage the system. Under the bill, unredeemed fees would pay for the cost of management, and would also go to grants to businesses and government entities to help them set up and manage recycling programs. These types of grants also could be available to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which runs the state landfill, to help pay for upgrades to its system.

The bill would allow smaller stores, under 2,000 square feet, to opt out of the program because of presumed difficulty in making space for returned containers.

In her pitch for the bill, McEntee said Rhode Island has achieved only a 30% recycling rate for beverage containers, and that 33,000 containers or bottle pieces were removed from Rhode Island shorelines during the 2022 International Coastal Cleanup.

McEntee said the state landfill gets 17,000 tons a year of recyclables. Much of it is never recycled to its highest use. Glass is crushed and spread over the landfill, and much of the plastic from food and beverages cannot be reused because it is mixed with dirtier plastics.

“Our landfill is almost at capacity,” McEntee said. “We don’t want to wait until the week before that happens” to take action.

Kevin Budris, advocacy director for Just Zero, said, “This bill will work well; it will be good for businesses. The unredeemed deposits can pay for grants to businesses. There could be tens of millions of dollars for the Resource Recovery Corporation to upgrade its equipment.”

Speakers who supported the bill often were residents who have taken part in litter cleanup programs, or who are simply tired off seeing bottles and cans along roads and beaches. A major offender is nips, which are often presumed to be thrown from cars by people who are drinking while driving.

Bill McCusker, a South Kingstown resident and member of Friends of the Saugatucket, said he and his group picked up 80,000 nips bottles during a 90-day cleanup challenge that is not even finished yet.

“It is a big problem and everyone has to be involved,” he said.

Melissa Devine said, “It is a commonsense bill that has been needed for a long time in Rhode Island. If we incentivize people [with a deposit] they will help us do the work of picking up bottle sand cans.”

Retailers, particularly liquor store owners, have plenty to not like about any bottle deposit-and-return system, and they repeated arguments presented in the past over previous bottle bills.

The main complaint by retailers at the hearing was over the space, cost, reporting requirements, and filth associated with storing the returned containers on their property until they are retrieved by distributors.

Nicole Gasparro said she is a retailer from East Providence, and she also worked, as a youngster, for her father’s business in Massachusetts, where empty containers were accepted in exchange for deposits. 

She said the situation was terrible: dregs in unwashed bottles created a stench and drew bugs, ants, and flies. People would get into fistfights trying to claim unattended bottles. She even saw bottles used as weapons. The store had to call police frequently. Customers had to do their shopping surrounded by the smell of rotting trash.

“It was terrifying to employees,” Gasparro said. “Nobody wants to work in those conditions.”

She added that the 3.5-cent per container handling fee didn’t get close to the cost that stores bear by running a redemption operation. That cost can include storage, cleaning of containers or fixing reverse vending machines, employee time, record keeping, and credit card fees.

Gasparro also contradicted supporters of the bill, who had said earlier that bottles from other states, say, Massachusetts, could be fraudulently returned for deposits in Rhode Island, which would pay a higher deposit fee than in Massachusetts. Bill supporters had argued that containers sold in Rhode Island would have a bar code identifying the state. 

Reverse vending machines, they said, would reject out-of-state bottles. Gasparro said this was not true; she had seen out-of-state bottles forced into Massachusetts bending machines by trickery and repeated inserting.

Retailers also argue that their industry should not be punished for a problem actually caused by litterbugs. One of their main arguments is for the state to better enforce anti-littering laws and drunk driving laws.

In 1984 the General Assembly passed the Litter Control Tax, which is collected via annual permits based on gross receipts of businesses that sell food or beverages. In its first 10 years, the tax helped pay for some public educational programs to discourage littering. 

Tax revenues were deposited in restricted receipt accounts. The law was amended in 1995 to move litter tax revenues into the state’s general fund. Store owners argue that the tax, which raised $3.9 million in 2021, should be pulled from the general fund and used for litter control.

“The money [to fight littering] is there, said Nicholas Fede, director of the Rhode Island Liquor Operators Collaborative. “Just appropriate it, please.”

Liquor store owners were not appeased by assurances from McEntee and other bill supporters that small retailers may opt out of the system. Except for retailers with less than 2,000 square feet of display space, all retailers who sell beverages would be required by law to accept returns of containers for any beverage they sell, whether or not the particular item was purchased at their own store. (The bill exempts bars and restaurants from having to take in containers not sold to their own customers.)

Retailers argued that the opt-out was no favor, because customers who return containers for a deposit would naturally tend to spend their money at the store where they brought their empties. This would create, they argued, a big, built-in disadvantage for small store owners if they chose to not accept empties.

“We are stores of varying sizes and we don’t want to turn into recycling centers,” Fede said. Managing returns “would be a massive infrastructure change and the startup costs would be dramatic.”

One small slice of ground for possible compromise arose in conversation over automated reverse vending machines — which accept empty containers and pay out deposits — that could be situated in places open to the public, but not necessarily at stores. A comment brought up the idea of freestanding reverse vending machines being placed on town or city property, say, at the Department of Public Works.

“I would love to see centralized redemption centers run by the state or towns,” Fede said. “Let’s do this right and do it once.”

McEntee agreed. “I like the idea of centralized redemption centers located at the stores, so that stores don’t have an advantage or a disadvantage.” She added, “I am open to amending the bill.”

Robert Goldberg, a lobbyist with the Rhode Island liquor industry, said the bill, as written, gives too much power to DEM. The bill gives the DEM director the authority to raise the refund value of empty containers starting in 2026 if the redemption rate is less than 90%. The DEM director also has the authority to raise the handling fee paid by beverage distributors.

“This is putting taxation in the hands of a bureaucrat,” Goldberg complained, even through the topic under discussion was fees, not taxes.

McEntee was adamant that the deposit-and-return system was doable. “Businesses don’t want more difficulties,” she said. “But once everyone gets used to something, we all adapt.”