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Expanded bottle law could be headed for ballot

Legislators eye changes as item nears ballot

The state’s bottle law could be expanded to include bottled water and sports drinks.

George Rizer/Globe file

The state’s bottle law could be expanded to include bottled water and sports drinks.

For two decades, environmental advocates have tried — and failedto persuade lawmakers to expand the bottle law, the nickel deposit that encourages recycling of soda, beer, and malt beverage containers. Soon, voters may get their own say in the matter.

Advocates are within weeks and a few formalities of putting the question directly on the November ballot. Voters would decide whether the 33-year-old anti-litter law should include bottled water, sports drinks, and other noncarbonated beverages, which now account for about 40 percent of all drinks sold in Massachusetts.

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“This bill has long represented good common-sense policy, but now it’s also about democracy,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of Masspirg, a statewide public interest advocacy organization, noting the bottle bill has been approved three times by the state Senate but has never received a vote on the House floor. “The only thing blocking our way are the special interests.”

The likelihood of a ballot question, however, has begun to spur action on Beacon Hill, because opponentsworry they could lose the ability to shape the legislation if the issue is put before voters. Polls have shown about three-quarters of registered voters favor expanding the bottle law, though critics deride it as a tax they say would raise the price of beverages and promote an inefficient way of recycling.

The chairmen of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy have appointed two opponents and two supporters of the bill to a subcommittee to seek a compromise and persuade proponents to withdraw the ballot initiative. Over the past few weeks, the lawmakers have met representatives of the different interest groups, including environmental advocates, beverage companies, distributors, and redemption centers.

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Their time is limited. They would have to find common ground and vote before July 2, when the advocates would have to submit final signatures to secure a spot on the ballot. If the opposing sides come to an agreement later, lawmakers could face a conflict similar to what occurred with the Right to Repair Act in 2012, when voters approved a ballot initiative that differed from a compromise that ultimately passed the Legislature. Lawmakers eventually had to pass a bill reconciling the different laws.

“The initiative definitely provides motivation to get something done,” said Representative John D. Keenan, a Salem Democrat who serves as the full committee’s cochairman and has long opposed expanding the bottle law. “I think opponents are savvy enough to understand that they could lose, and that it’s going to be a lot of money that might be better spent.”

He added: “I don’t want to go through Right to Repair again. That was a fiasco. The clock is ticking.”

Members of the subcommittee said the gap between supporters and opponents of the bill remains wide, but there are potential areas for compromise.

Staunch opponents such as the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents supermarkets, have said the only compromise they would accept would be one that would scrap the bottle law for a program that would tax all containers by a penny and put the money raised in a fund that encouraged recycling. They argue that requiring the redemption of bottles in an era when more residents have curbside recycling makes little sense and burdens companies that have to provide space in their stores to redeem the bottles. They consider the bottle law an outdated solution.

Proponents scoff at calls to end the bottle law and say such a position provides no incentive for them to halt the ballot initiative — which, if passed, would be preferable to a legislative compromise. They said killing the bottle law would worsen the state’s already dismal recycling rate of 38 percent of all municipal solid waste and mean more bottles would end up in landfills.

More than three-quarters of redeemable bottles in Massachusetts get recycled, while fewer than a quarter of nonredeemable bottles are recycled, the supporters say.

Every year, about 30,000 tons of noncarbonated-beverage bottles are buried in landfills, burned in waste-to-energy plants, or discarded as litter in Massachusetts, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

To reach a compromise in the Legislature, proponents of expanding the bottle law said they would be willing to negotiate the handling fee paid to supermarkets and other stores required to redeem the bottles they sell, which would rise by a penny per container if voters approve the initiative.

They would also consider allowing the law to be phased in over a period of time; requiring fewer stores to redeem bottles on their property; allotting the nearly $60 million in unredeemed nickels from an expanded law to recycling programs, rather than to the state’s general fund; and exempting some juice bottles to placate large drink companies in the state such as Ocean Spray, a provision similar to language included in bills that passed the Senate in previous years.

“I’m hopeful we’ll get to a compromise, but I wouldn’t say I’m confident,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat on the subcommittee who has long supported expanding the bottle law. “I’m encouraged by the public comments from the environmental community that they have a willingness to compromise, but I’m equally frustrated that the beverage companies and the grocer’s association appear unwilling.”

Representative Randy Hunt, a Sandwich Republican on the subcommittee who has opposed efforts to expand the bottle law, said the ballot initiative has added an urgency around the issue that hasn’t existed before. But he said lawmakers were unlikely to pass legislation without more agreement between opponents and proponents.

“If there is no middle ground, we might just be spinning our wheels,” he said, noting the lawmakers had planned to meet in late May to see whether they could craft a bill.

Environmental advocates, who have the support of the Patrick administration, have had more than 90,000 signatures certified in their initial petition to put expanding the bottle law on the ballot, more than 20,000 beyond what the state requires. That put the Legislature on notice to act by the beginning of May.

When that didn’t happen, the state gave the proponents from May 12 through June 18 to collect another 12,000 signatures. Those have to be delivered to the secretary of state’s office by July 2. If the signatures are confirmed, the issue will be presented to voters in November.

Opponents have promised a vigorous fight against a ballot question, a campaign that could see millions of dollars from large beverage companies and supermarket chains flow into the state to prevent Massachusetts from joining New York, Connecticut, and Maine, each of which expanded their bottle laws in recent years.

“We would prefer to avoid a ballot question, which will be time consuming and expensive,” said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association. “But if we have to go down that route, I’m confident it will be rejected when the people get the facts.”

While many advocates are eager to go through with the ballot initiative, Phil Sego, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said he would prefer a legislative solution, which would avoid the rancor of a ballot campaign and allow him to focus on other issues.

“We just hope this focuses the Legislature’s attention on this issue,” he said.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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