Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Eleventh hour bottle bill reignites debate between environmental, business groups

Last minute bills often fail

By Nancy Lavin, Rhode Island Current

Disagreement over a state bottle recycling program is as pervasive as the piles of recyclable bottles and cans littering Rhode Island streets, beaches and waterways.

So it’s no surprise that controversy again clouded the bottle bill conversation Wednesday night. 

Hours of debate unfolded in an airless second-floor State House hearing room as a parade of proponents and critics sat elbow to elbow, waiting to make their case to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. 

Their arguments, punctuated by the staccato of a cell phone alarm signaling the end of each two-minute speaking window, sounded nearly identical to years past. Environmental advocates backed the deposit-refund program as a means to reduce litter and incentivize recycling, while retail store owners and business groups railed against what they perceived as an unwelcome financial and administrative burden.

Yet the latest version of bottle bill legislation, introduced May 24 by Rep. Carol McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, is markedly different from prior iterations, leaving many of the most controversial components up to state regulators and beverage producers to decide.

“I made the bill purposefully vague so we could make adjustments,” McEntee said in an interview prior to the hearing. “It’s a skeleton. It has the bones, but we need to make it so it works for Rhode Island.”

Like prior proposals, the legislation establishes a refundable deposit program for recyclable beverage containers: plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans, ranging from 50-milliliter miniature alcohol containers known as “nips” to 3-liter soda bottles. 

Following similar programs in 10 other states — including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — customers would pay a 10-cent per-bottle fee at the store. They can get their money back when they return the empty bottle, can or nip.

Rather than dictate where empties get sent — a past point of contention among retailers — the bill calls for a new, nonprofit contractor hired by beverage producers to come up with the rules. The producer responsibility organization (PRO) would work with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to set up and carry out required bottle return and redemption components.

The PRO would also be responsible for helping meet state recycling goals, including a mandated 90% return rate of empty bottles by the eighth year of program operations, and working with producers to increase the proportion of containers made from reusable materials.

“This is the simplest, least prescriptive approach to a bottle bill in the nation,” McEntee told lawmakers Wednesday. “It gives the beverage industry room to figure out the rules.”

And there’s no cost to state taxpayers, since producers would pay for administrative fees to run the PRO, McEntee said. Lack of government funding has been a major selling point in states nationwide, 35 of which have adopted the “extended producer responsibility approach” to tackle recycling in some form: from paper and plastic to electronics, batteries and mercury thermostats, according to an October report by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rhode Island’s recycling problem is no secret; from sidewalks and ponds, to the mountain of sprawling, 154-acre Central Landfill in Johnston, recyclable bottles and cans are increasingly ending up in places where they do not belong.

Less than one-third of bottles and cans that can be recycled in Rhode Island are recycled, according to a January 2023 report by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the quasi-public agency that runs the state’s Central Landfill and Material Recycling Facility. Most end up in the landfill or as litter. Nips are a particular problem, as they are too small to be separated out by recycling equipment, according to landfill operators. 

The not-so-succinctly named Special Joint Legislative Commission to Study and Provide Recommendations to Protect our Environment and Natural Resources from Plastic Bottle Waste has spent the last 10 months talking to environmental groups, business representatives and experts in other states about how to reconcile competing interests for the sake of a Rhode Island program. McEntee co-chaired the committee, though she stressed that her legislation does not reflect the perspectives of all 18 members.

But, she added, “much of the information in this bill was heard in this study commission and learned by me and other members.”

One option: a QR code-based, automated bag-drop redemption system for recyclable bottles and cans developed by Maine company CLYNK. CEO Matt Prindiville ventured down to Providence Wednesday to explain how his company’s technological solution has boosted recycling rates while maintaining strong customer satisfaction in the states where it operates: Maine, New York, Oregon and Iowa, and soon expanding into Connecticut.

“You’re not going to solve litter through extended producers responsibility alone,” he said. “You’re going to need return systems. The best systems are the ones that maximize convenience and value for the consumers.”

While McEntee, along with other members of the study panel, favored the bag-drop return system, the legislation leaves it up to the PRO and DEM to decide how and where customers can return their empties.

That worried Jed Thorp, Rhode Island state director for Clean Water Action. Making returns convenient for customers is widely considered a key tenant of successful programs; too few options could defeat the purpose of the program, Thorp said in an interview earlier Wednesday.

“Without having some more details and safeguards for convenience, it makes us a little bit nervous,” Thorp said.

Strong opposition from liquor and beverage industry

Dozens of liquor store owners and beverage industry lobbyists also cited lack of specificity as cause for pause.

“Without understanding the commitments we would be required to make, it’s nearly impossible to respond thoughtfully for my business,” said Jackie Mancini, senior vice president of business operations for West Greenwich-based wholesaler, Mancini Beverage. She also serves on the study commission representing the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

“There are many challenges with bottle bills that our industry can’t support,” Mancini said.

Asked what those challenges were, she answered “I don’t know yet.”

Many naysayers, pressed by lawmakers for a preferred alternative, were unable to offer one. Or, they defaulted to the familiar refrain of legislative sessions past: education, combined with upgrades to the Central Landfill’s 20-year-old material recycling facility (MRF).

Tensions rose higher than the room’s temperature, as lawmakers grew frustrated with critics’ inability to clearly answer the question of whether they supported any form of a bottle bill, or had another solution in mind.

“Please, please, please come up with something, ‘cause otherwise we’re just going to pass something and you’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it,” Rep. Kathleen Fogarty, a South Kingstown Democrat said. 

“I am looking for ideas, you’re looking for ideas, this is the best idea I’ve seen so far,” Rep. Jason Knight, a Barrington Democrat said. “Why not give the PRO a chance?

Lawmakers held McEntee’s bill for further study, the standard practice for a first hearing on legislation. 

Yet the clock is ticking on the legislative session, widely expected to end next week. Also looming: the June 10 deadline by which the bottle study commission is expected to issue a report of recommendations to the legislature.

Chances of meeting either deadline are quickly evaporating, Thorp acknowledged. He framed Wednesday’s hearing more as a chance for feedback than an attempt to pass legislation this year.

“There were so many different ways to consider it, it made sense to put something on paper to have something concrete for people to react to,” Thorp said. “It’s helpful in terms of furthering the conversation.”

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate Dominick Ruggerio indicated similar views in a joint emailed statement Wednesday.

“The bottle bill is a very complex issue with a wide divergence of opinions,” they said.  “We are committed to working with all the stakeholders and we hope to extend the life of the joint bipartisan commission because there is much more work to be done before a consensus can be reached.”

As for Gov. Dan McKee?

“Should this bill move through the General Assembly this year, the Governor will review the version that reaches his desk,” Olivia DaRocha, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in an email on Wednesday.

McEntee was optimistic, despite the late-session introduction of her bill, and lack of Senate companion legislation.

“I would love to see it pass this year,” she said prior to the hearing.

DEM has not taken a position on the legislation, Evan LaCross, a department spokesperson said in an email on Wednesday.

If approved, the legislation would take effect July 1, 2024, though the initial program requirements for producers wouldn’t kick in until July 1, 2025.



Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.