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Environmental groups urge McKee to back ‘bottle bill’ to fight litter

Environmentalists thank the governor for mentioning litter in his State of the State speech but say a container deposit law is “the single most impactful policy we can adopt to reduce litter in the state.”

Stephanie Santos, left, and Elise Torello place plastic "nips" into recycling bins. They are part of a few Rhode Island cleanup groups that have teamed up to pick up the miniature plastic alcohol containers around the state.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Environmental groups are telling Governor Daniel J. McKee that he should back a “bottle bill” if he wants to do something about litter in Rhode Island.

During his State of the State address on Tuesday night, the Democratic governor called for eliminating “a so-called litter tax” on businesses, saying the fees collected don’t actually go into cleaning up litter. He proposed instead putting $100,000 into a “Litter-Free Rhody” program, led by first lady Susan McKee, that would encourage people to pick up litter.

Ten environmental groups wrote to McKee this week, thanking him for highlighting the issue of litter in his speech. “Despite decades of anti-littering efforts and an increase in access to single-stream recycling in the state, litter and marine debris continue to be a persistent and growing environmental problem,” they wrote.

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But decades of experience have shown that “public education and volunteer cleanups are not enough to adequately address the problem,” the environmental organizations said. “We also need to adopt laws and regulations that have been proven to be effective in reducing litter and improving recycling.”

So the groups urged McKee to join them in asking the General Assembly to pass a container deposit law, or “bottle bill,” calling it “the single most impactful policy we can adopt to reduce litter in the state.”

Beverage containers — especially plastic bottles — are one of the main contributors to litter and marine debris in Rhode Island, the letter said. For example, during the 2021 International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers removed more than 31,000 bottles from Rhode Island’s shore.

Nearby states such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York have had container deposit laws on the books for decades, the environmental groups said. They cited a study by the Container Recycling Institute, which found that bottle bills consistently result in “beverage container litter reductions” of between 70 and 84 percent, and total litter reductions of between 34 and 47 percent.

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“A deposit return system would have minimal impact on the state budget, and achieve far greater results than litter pickup programs,” the environmental groups said. “Bottle bills have been shown to benefit local economies by reducing waste management costs for cities and towns, and creating jobs in retail, distribution and recycling. Furthermore, deposit return systems complement existing curbside recycling programs.”

The letter was signed by leaders of Clean Water Action, Save the Bay, Conservation Law Foundation, Clean Ocean Access, Just Zero, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, Zero Waste Providence, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and Be the Solution to the Pollution.

On Friday, McKee press secretary Olivia DaRocha said, “As referenced in his State of the State address earlier this week with the Keep Rhody Litter Free initiative, keeping our state free of litter and looking pristine is a priority for the governor. That’s also why he’s proposing a dedicated line item in his budget for this initiative. Regarding the “bottle bill,” the governor’s team is reviewing the legislation and we’ll continue to monitor it as it makes it way through the legislative process.”

In 2022, Representative Carol Hagan McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, introduced a bottle bill, which called for a refundable 10 cent deposit for non-reusable beverage containers. But the bill never made it out of committee. Senator Bridget Valverde, an East Greenwich Democrat, introduced a Senate version of the bottle bill, but it, too, died in committee.

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A representative of the American Beverage Association testified against that legislation, saying the proposal “is based on US deposit systems established in the 1970s that have led to stagnant redemption rates.”

“These systems lack proper governance structures and therefore provide no accountability for performance, lack coordination, and reward inefficiency,” wrote Bree Dietly of Breezeway Consulting. “This bill particularly seems to fund the redemption system twice. No one would be responsible for the performance of the redemption system under this proposal — it sets mandates for reverse vending machines across a wide range of retailers, establishes the option for redemption centers, and hopes for the best.”

Dietly said big beverage companies such as the Coca-Cola Company, Keurig Dr Pepper, and PepsiCo “are investing in the modernization of recycling systems in strategic areas of the country to ensure bottles are remade as intended and don’t end up in oceans, rivers, or wasted in landfills.”

The Northeast Dairy Foods Association also opposed the bill.

“Requiring food and beverage manufacturers to absorb additional costs would unnecessarily place additional risk on businesses who are already struggling to compete with other present economic factors, such as, historic levels of inflation and transportation costs brought on by both national and international circumstances,” regulatory affairs director Paul M. Harvey wrote.

Consumers like curbside recycling programs, Harvey said. “It does not make sense to take containers that are now being recycled, impose a deposit and force consumers, and grocery stores, to take them back under the proposed bottle law,” he wrote.

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Jed Thorp, Rhode Island state director of Clean Water Action, said the issue is gaining traction now in part because of “nips,” the miniature alcohol containers that are often found cast aside on roadways or washed up along waterways all over Rhode Island. He said volunteers with Friends of the Saugatucket collected more than 5,000 “nips” in 20 days.

Representative David A. Bennett, a Warwick Democrat who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, introduced legislation last year that would have prohibited the sale of miniature alcoholic beverage containers in Rhode Island, but that bill died in his own committee.

Thorp said bottle bills have been introduced at the General Assembly for decades, going back to the 1970s. But, he said, “I think this is the year to get it done because there is a growing awareness of the plastic problem in the state, and lawmakers get that we need to do more than what have been doing.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.