Six years ago, the bottling industry spent millions of dollars to undermine a cause long championed by environmental advocates.
As part of a barrage of TV ads, Peggy Ayres, a former chairwoman of the Marlborough Recycling Committee, urged state residents to vote against a ballot initiative to expand the state’s bottle law.
“Thirty years ago, the redemption deposit was a good idea,” she said in one ad financed by the American Beverage Association. “But now with curbside recycling, it’s an idea whose time has come and passed.”
The industry’s main argument: Expanding the bottle law to include non-carbonated beverages would deprive communities of much-needed revenue from curbside recycling.
But times have changed. Now, with a national crisis that has made recycling more an economic burden than boon for most communities, environmental advocates and local officials are turning that argument on its head.
At a recent hearing on Beacon Hill, they argued that requiring deposits on bottled water and sports drinks — the vast majority of beverages sold today — would do more than reduce litter and the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills. It would save cities and towns millions of dollars by reducing the increasingly onerous costs of recycling and shifting the disposal cost to the beverage industry.
“For the first time since the inception of recycling, our cities will now be forced to pay a costly tipping fee for the disposal of recycled goods,” said Michael Bloomberg, chief of staff to the mayor of Holyoke, which in good years earned as much as $70,000 from its recycling program. This year, the city expects to pay $160,000.
Reading a letter signed by mayors throughout western Massachusetts, where a state contractor recently told many communities they must pay as much as $150 a ton for their recycling, Bloomberg urged lawmakers to alleviate the financial burden by giving people a financial incentive to redeem bottles and cans. The current deposit is a nickel, though some are calling for it to be increased to a dime.
Adding beverages to a new law — such as wine bottles and nips, which are responsible for increasing amounts of pollution across the state — could reduce some 300,000 tons of bottles from curbside recycling and save municipalities an estimated $45 million a year, according to a draft version of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s 2030 solid waste plan.
“Recycling is failing, and while our residents and our planet pay the price, large packaging companies and the waste industry are experiencing record profits,” Bloomberg told the lawmakers. “Now is the time for producers to take responsibility for the damage they are causing.”
But opposition remains firm. In 2014, the bottling industry spent $9 million to oppose the ballot initiative, a move that had a significant impact on public opinion.
One reason they have long opposed expanding the law: Bottlers are required to pay a handling fee of 3 cents a bottle or can to cover a portion of the costs of redemption centers, and 2 cents to other collection sites, such as package stores.
Before the industry began blanketing the airwaves with ads, which often contained misleading statistics, a 2014 Boston Globe poll found 62 percent of likely voters supported expanding the landmark environmental law. But when voters went to the polls that November, nearly three-quarters of them rejected the initiative.
At the recent State House hearing, Steve Changaris, northeast region vice president of the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade group for waste companies, repeated some of the old arguments, despite the challenges facing the recycling market.
“If you want to kill curbside recycling, do that,” he told lawmakers, suggesting that if too many bottles are removed from the system with an expanded law, there wouldn’t be enough revenue for waste companies. “We need the value of the current plastics at the curb. If we lose those, there will be additional costs.”
In a letter to lawmakers, the Massachusetts Package Stores Association urged the Legislature to “protect the health and vigor” of state recycling programs and raised concerns about the viability of the state’s dwindling number of redemption centers.
“These bills appease the public’s desire for expanded programs while ignoring existing flaws within the current recycling framework,” they wrote.
The group noted that handling fees, paid for by the bottling industry, for processing cans and bottles have not increased in more than a decade. They also complained that many of the recyclables at the redemption centers can go uncollected for months.
“The problem has become so acute that [the association] routinely submits complaints” to the state, which oversees the redemption program, they wrote.
But environmental advocates said that an updated bottle law, especially one that would raise deposit fees from a nickel to a dime, would help redemption centers and improve the overall system. Moreover, millions of dollars of unclaimed deposits could be used to support curbside recycling and other environmental programs.
If a deposit is not redeemed, the money goes to the state treasury.
Proponents estimate an expanded law could raise an additional nearly $50 million for the state from unclaimed deposits.
It would also increase the number of bottles that are recycled, they said.
In Michigan, where the deposit is now a dime, the redemption rate is greater than 90 percent; in Massachusetts, the amount of cans and bottled recycled by redemption centers is little more than 50 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a California group that monitors the industry.
An updated law also would go a long way to reducing litter — the initial rationale for bottle laws that were passed in the 1980s. One study by the Australian federal government, which surveyed US states, found that those with bottle laws had 40 percent less litter.
And less for trucks to pick up curbside.
“This is about saving cities and towns more money,” Kirstie Pecci, a senior fellow at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, testified at the state hearing before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy.
Responding to arguments that the change would raise costs for curbside recycling programs, she said that shouldn’t be the case, as most cities and towns base their contracts on the tonnage of what they recycle.
In Boston, where it now costs taxpayers nearly $5 million for curbside recycling — up from just $200,000 before the crisis began in 2017 — city officials said they support expanding the bottle law.
“It’s a priority in Boston that we increase recycling and reduce litter in our neighborhoods,” said Samantha Ormsby, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
When John Coughlin came up to speak at the hearing on Beacon Hill, the member of the Massachusetts Sportsmen’s Council called it “outrageous” that the Legislature has repeatedly failed to update the law.
“Anyone who says we shouldn’t pass this law is out of their mind,” he said. “It’s proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it works.”