Every legislative session for nearly two decades, state lawmakers have proposed bills to expand the bottle law, the nickel deposit that encourages recycling of soda, beer, and malt beverage containers.
The bills have died every time, usually cast into the legislative oblivion known as being “sent to study.”
So on Thursday night, advocates could not believe their ears when senators, by a voice vote and without debate, adopted the bottle legislation as Amendment 36 to a jobs and economic development bill.
The bill passed the Senate, and the amendment’s fate is now up to a conference committee of six lawmakers from the House and Senate.
If the bottle bill expansion survives, it would update the 31-year-old antilitter law by applying the deposit to bottled water, juices, and sports drinks, which account for more than a third of all beverages sold in Massachusetts.
“For weeks, people have been saying, I don’t think there’s a chance; the Senate president doesn’t want it, the speaker doesn’t want it, there isn’t time,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of Masspirg, a consumer advocacy organization that has spent years lobbying to expand the bottle bill. “Now, we finally have some progress.”
The bill, called a tax by opponents, has the strong support of the Patrick administration, which says the state would raise about $58 million by allowing redemption of an additional 1.5 billion containers a year, about $20 million more than under current law. Municipalities would save as much as $7 million in disposal costs, the administration says.
The state earns revenue from deposits that are not returned when people put their drink containers in recycling bins or the trash or toss them on the ground.
“We have long advocated for this bill, because it makes sense for the people of the Commonwealth and the environment, saving municipalities money, creating jobs, and leading to a cleaner Massachusetts,” Rick Sullivan, secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said in a statement.
Opponents of the bottle law say expanding it would raise the cost of beverages, promote fraud by encouraging cross-
border sales of bottles, and curb efforts to expand other recycling programs.
“We think it’s the wrong approach,” said Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents more than 50 supermarkets in Massachusetts. “This will hurt jobs, it won’t help jobs.”
Dave Andelman, president of the Restaurant and Business Alliance, was incredulous about how the amendment passed when it failed to win approval as a stand-alone bill this year in the Senate and House.
“Why are we holding voice votes on a matter of this importance?” he asked.
Senate President Therese Murray said she thought the bill could have passed a full vote in the Senate, even though it was sent to study in May.
“There was support in the Senate, and members had the votes,” she said in a statement. “We don’t know if it will survive conference, since the House has said that they will not accept any additional taxes or fees.”
The bill has long been blocked by House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, whose office Friday would not comment on the prospects of the amendment becoming law.
“That will be a matter of discussion for the conference committee,” said Seth Gitell, a spokesman for DeLeo.
The amendment was introduced Thursday by Senator Robert Hedlund, Republican of Weymouth, who scoffed at the notion the deposit is a tax and sees expanding the bottle law as a way to reduce trash strewn in streets and parks.
“I like to hike and walk around, and just seeing the voluminous amount of filth and litter drives me crazy,” he said, adding the bill would also reduce waste sent to landfills. “As far as the speaker’s point that this is a tax, I don’t think it holds any water. When I buy a carbonated beverage, and I redeem it, I get my nickel back. When I pay sales tax, I don’t.”
He and other proponents of expanding the bottle law, which passed in 1981 when lawmakers overrode a veto by Governor Edward J. King, argue it is needed to respond to the dramatic rise in use of plastic containers. The Container Recycling Institute, a Washington-based group that monitors the recycling of bottles, estimated that Americans doubled the amount of bottled water they drank between 2003 and 2005, when more than 50 billion plastic bottles ended up in incinerators, landfills, or as litter.
Supporters say it would also help the state’s redemption centers, which have seen a significant decline in the number of bottles redeemed as the value of a nickel has dropped. Since 1995, the number of centers has plummeted by more than half, and during the same period, the redemption of cans and bottles has slid from 87 percent of eligible containers to about 68 percent last year.
Redemption centers, which have not had an increase since 1990 in the 2.25-cent fee distributors must pay them for every bottle returned, would get an additional penny a bottle if the bill becomes law.
As Janet Domenitz watched the action on the Senate floor Thursday night waiting anxiously for Amendment 36 — one of more than 100 amendments — the vote came so quickly and inaudibly that she wasn’t sure what happened.
It wasn’t until she began receiving tweets from supporters watching the Senate online that she realized the bill had finally passed a major hurdle.
“The Senate finally heeded what 77 percent of the public supports, what 208 towns have endorsed, and what 350 small businesses have signed on to support,” she said. “They said it couldn’t be done, [but] this changes everything.”
Due to an error, a previous version of this story was incomplete.