Room 473-B
State House
Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2230
District Office
585A Main St.
Winchester, MA 01890
Telephone: (617) 721-7285 or (617) 438-7185

A View from the Hill

CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240


Foreign visitors to the great state of Massachusetts must be puzzled when buying a can of soda here. On the top of the can they probably notice a suspicious string of letters that read: "ME VT MA CT NY." Upon seeing this, our foreign guests might think they have intercepted a top secret message being transmitted in the form of an innocent soft drink. Of course, they will soon find out that all soda cans bear the same "code," and it will neither give them Pentagon access nor disclose locations of secret military bases. No, the only thing that the code will do is give our guests a nickel when they redeem their can at the counter.

Our state is among several with container deposit laws. Cognizant of mounting environmental problems, state legislators worked with public interest groups in 1981 to create the "Bottle Law." The logic of the legislation was that those who made the waste should pay for it. The Bottle Law is designed to prevent littering and reduce the volume of trash going to our landfills and/or incinerators. Litter costs taxpayers thousands of dollars and often causes injuries (especially to children who cut themselves on broken bottles). Landfills are problematic because they waste valuable public property and sometimes contaminate local groundwater. Incinerators, especially older ones, produce dioxins and other airborne pollutants that can pose serious health risks to citizens.

After almost 17 years under the law, Massachusetts has benefited enormously. Reports show that roadside litter was reduced by 35%, beverage container litter was cut by 70%, and litter-related injuries were decreased by 60%. We now recycle over 35% of the 12 billion pounds of garbage generated annually. Deposit containers have a return rate of 70-80%, compared to 15-20% for all others. That amounts to about 1.5 billion containers kept out of the trash each year, saving municipalities substantial amounts of money. In total, over 2 million tons of reusable materials are remanufactured each year as recycled products, sustaining 12, 000 well-paying jobs and promoting $600 million in investments.

Despite these successes, there is a new industry-backed bill (H.4552) that is trying to "can" the Bottle Law. The beverage industry (a group that had vehemently opposed the original bottle bill in the early 80s) argues that the law is flawed and therefore must be eliminated. While the Bottle Law may need some updating, adopting the overhaul environmental legislation supported by the beverage industry is probably not in the public interest.

Improving the Bottle Law One way to enhance the law would be to update it to account for the tastes of the modern consumer. In the past decade, "new age" drinks like iced tea and bottled water have increased 1200% and yet, do not require deposits. We are aware of this fact and have attempted over the years to expand the law to cover these items. Another improvement would be to adopt new technologies and regulations to reduce fraud in the redemption process. Although fraud is a relatively minor expense to taxpayers (and offset by unclaimed deposit revenues), prevention measures would benefit taxpayers and bottlers alike.

We must also address the issue of beverage business lost to other states. Many legislators advocating H.4552 come from districts near the New Hampshire border and claim to have initiated legislation on behalf of small businesses. We should not abandon these retailers, as their claims may be valid, but we also must not engage in an environmental "race to the bottom" with states that have lenient laws. In any case, we must remember that the beverage industry -not "mom and pop" convenient stores- pushed for this legislation and it must be viewed in this light.

Bottle Law vs. Municipal Recycling The heart of the debate is the apparent conflict between the redemption system and municipal recycling programs. The beverage industry posits that having two systems is inefficient and unnecessary. Recent improvements in "curbside" municipal recycling, they note, has made the Bottle Law obsolete.

This claim fails to consider a number of factors. Studies show that about half of all waste is produced away from one's home. We throw trash away at home, in school, at work, and in public places (where recycling programs are sometimes sparse). In addition, we are more likely to consume "single-serve" containers away from home, especially when we are on the road (where cans and bottles made up a very high percentage of litter). Although we could certainly boost recycling efforts in public places like parks and stadiums, the Bottle Law is currently the only thing preventing people from tossing things in the trash or out the window when they are away from home.

If we were to rely solely on municipal programs, we would see a dramatic reduction in recycling. As noted, 80% of deposit containers are returned as opposed to 20% of non-deposit containers. More bottles and cans would simply end up in incinerators and landfills.

We could adopt "pay per throw" measures as did Worcester, where people pay $.50 per trash bag. This program boosted recycling in that city from 3% to 36% in one month, and it is now at 55%. This does an excellent job in the reduction of garbage produced from residences (where container sizes are often larger), but it still does not account for waste produced when we are away from home. Perhaps if we combined "pay per throw" with a strengthened Bottle Law, we could top the charts in statewide recycling.

Revoking the Bottle Law would create an enormous loophole for the beverage industry. There would be no incentive to reduce packaging and create reusable containers, since the burden of disposal would be unfairly shifted to the taxpayers at large. We would see an increase in littering and a decrease in recycling, reversing everything that has been done in the last 17 years. While some may have identified the shortcomings of the law, the proper solution is to address these issues through amendments. Let's improve the Bottle Law, not throw it out the window.

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