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Hitting the Bottle Bill 

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Now there's another reason to stock up on bottled water. Sen. James Leddy (D-Chittenden) is drafting legislation to expand Vermont's 32-year-old bottle deposit law to include cans and bottles of non-carbonated drinks. "There are a very substantial number of containers that are recyclable that are going into the landfill," he points out.

Indeed. Approximately 80 million containers of water, juice, tea and sports drinks are consumed in Vermont annually. Without a 5-cent deposit, the recycling rate for these drinks may be as low as 20 percent, according to figures from the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

That's a far cry from the redemption rate for the soda, beer, wine and liquor containers covered under the existing law. Although the state keeps no official data on beverage sales or redemption rates, estimates provided by the industry and environmental groups put it somewhere between 70 and 90 percent.

It's clear that deposit laws succeed in raising recycling rates. According to figures compiled by CRI, the 10 states with bottle bills in 1999 had a combined recycling rate of almost 72 percent on soda and beer. That same year, the 40 states without a deposit system recycled just 28 percent of their empties.

Many in the beverage industry wince at the idea of expanding the bottle bill, however. Bottlers argue that the current redemption system is an expensive and inefficient way to recycle, and that expansion would only make the problems worse. "We pay retailers a 72-cent handling fee per case of product -- that's 3 cents per bottle," says Davis Bodette, director of marketing at the Pepsi Cola Bottling Company of Burlington. "It has to come right out of our profit. We have to have a huge amount of warehouse space to house dirty empties and to process all of it. And our trucks get sent out 10-percent empty, which means there's a lot of wasted fuel." He estimates the Vermont's deposit bill costs beverage distributors between $5 and $6 million a year.

"The cost of handling and sorting expansion items would be quite high," adds Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers' Association. By law, local retailers must redeem the bottles and cans of the products they sell, so changing the rules would impact every back storeroom in the state. "Most stores just shudder when they think of the challenges in terms of space and sanitation," Harrison says.

"We'd have a mountain back there," says Rose Gowdey, director of marketing and community relations at Burlington's City Market. Although it doesn't advertise the fact, the downtown grocery store does accept empty cans --Êprovided they stock the beverage. But if fruit juice and water bottles were handled like Diet Coke cans? "We'd have to come up with something new and probably expensive to handle it," she says, noting, "We have a strong commitment to recycling."

Leddy is also considering a provision that would allow the money from unclaimed deposits to be returned to the state to fund solid-waste management programs. Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan already have similar rules. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, estimates this could bring the state as much as $2.5 million in additional revenue.

But the idea finds few supporters in the beverage industry. "The millions and millions of dollars just aren't there," says Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist for the Vermont Beverage Association. He says high redemption rates in the state mean unclaimed deposits don't amount to much. Even so, he says, "The redemption system is a money loser for the bottlers. It's only fair for them to get something back."

Most observers agree that Leddy faces an uphill battle in the legislature, where industry lobbyists are lining up to defeat any expansion. But Leddy believes the bottle bill is worth a fight. "My father-in-law had a corner store, and he was worried about the deposit law when it was first introduced," he recounts. "Well, it worked. Nobody can say it hasn't worked to clean up the highways and to recycle a host of materials. Now, 30 years later, we need to do what we can to make sure the bottle bill is working as well as it possibly can."

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Andrew Barker


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