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Group seeks bottle bill alternative, as others rally for expansion

About half a year after a dramatic debate over whether to expand the state’s bottle deposit law, a group backed by the food and beverage industry is seeking to scrap the whole deposit law in favor of a new recycling program.

State Senator Michael Moore, Democrat of Millbury, has filed legislation that would phase out the 5-cent deposit on cans and bottles, replacing it with a 1-cent fee paid by distributors and bottlers, which would be used to fund recycling efforts.

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“Ninety percent of the cities and towns have available to them either curbside or drop-off programs for their recyclables,” said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association. “Why are we segregating recyclables, some of the recyclables and bringing them back to a food store? One, it’s not the environment we should be bringing back our trash. And two, it’s at a significant increased cost. It’s about three to four times more expensive.”

The effort to repeal the bottle deposit law is sure to rankle its supporters, who have been pushing to expand the law and have been stymied by legislative leadership that is wary of the change.

“We should be doing a hundred things to improve recycling. Of course I’m for a lot of measures, but the bottle bill is a 29-year-old law that has proven to be the single most effective recycling law there is, and we’re just trying to update it. It’s not the only thing, but it’s at the top of the heap,” Janet Domenitz, the executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said last year.

Opponents of the bottle bill have disputed that, calling the law outdated and favoring methods such as pay-as-you-throw trash collection systems designed to incentivize people to minimize their trash by recycling as much of it as possible.

Moore said he was ready for the debate and looked forward to it. “It will be a positive debate, because it’s all about recycling, and trying to increase the rates of recycling throughout the Commonwealth,” he said. “It’s just about how do we get to that objective.

“We shouldn’t be opposed to discussing alternatives,” he said. “We’ve got to look at the ultimate objective and that’s to increase the recycling rates.”

Moore said he was concerned by how a bottle bill expansion would affect Polar Beverages in his district, which he said would “possibly cost jobs.” He said he was convinced to file the legislation, the first of its kind, after seeing statistics that showed recycling rates increased with pay-as-you-throw.

Asked if he would want to bring pay-as-you-throw to his hometown of Millbury, Moore said, “If it’s an option, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

Filed each session for well over a decade, the “bottle bill” has sought to add a 5-cent deposit to water, iced tea, and juice. Since it went into effect in 1983, the bottle deposit law has only applied to carbonated beverages and beer.

Moore’s legislation would require a 1-cent fee, paid by companies, for all containers, 4 liters or less in size, that contain a beverage, including carbonated, non-carbonated, alcoholic, non-alcoholic, and excluding dairy, infant formula, and medical food.

For years, bottle bill expansion supporters cast the debate as one between vested business interests opposed to the bill and environmentalists in favor of it. Moore’s legislation could put the onus on bottle bill supporters to show that the law is still necessary and not outdated.

Moore’s bill would phase out the 1983 law by July 2014, and establish the Municipal Recycling Enhancement Fund, directed by an 11-member board appointed by the governor, which would finance recycling efforts, such as pay-as-you-throw.

The new legislation is supported by Real Recycling for Massachusetts, a coalition of bottlers, retailers, unions, and the Massachusetts Food Association and Massachusetts Beverage Association, which has pushed back against growing support for the bottle bill’s expansion, offering alternatives.

Last summer, the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group said they had collected enough pledges from lawmakers in the House and Senate to pass the bill if it reached the floor. A House committee sent the bill to study, preventing it from reaching the floor.

After initially sending the bill to study, the Senate included the legislation as a budget amendment on a voice vote, but that language was dropped from the budget that came out of conference committee.

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