Bottle bill would lower deposit for wine, spirits

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Nicholas Johnson tosses beer cans into a giant bag Wednesday afternoon at Roopers Beverage & Redemption on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Advocates of a proposal that would lower the deposit on wine and liquor bottles by 10 cents say the measure would equalize returnables and simplify the process.

State Rep. Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester, the bill’s sponsor, wrote in a statement that she seeks “to implement a uniform refund value” by reducing the deposit put on spirits and wine containers by 10 cents — to 5 cents from 15 cents. All other returnable containers in Maine carry a 5-cent deposit.

The proposal “would have minimal/no costs to the state and would create a level playing field with other states and keep more money in the hands of the consumer,” Espling wrote in remarks filed with the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, which has voted out a divided report. A full vote on the bill on the House floor might happen as soon as next week.

Making all deposits on returnables uniform would help eliminate any confusion on the part of retailers who mark containers and collect deposits, as well as on the part of workers at redemption centers, Espling wrote. The measure would help make Maine more competitive with neighboring New Hampshire, where spirits are neither taxed nor carry a bottle deposit, she wrote.

In testimony submitted to the committee, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council lent his support for Espling’s bill, noting that only 10 states have bottle deposit systems and, of those, six include containers of spirits.

“There appears to be no rhyme or reason for having this dual deposit system,”  spokesman Jay Hibbard wrote. Wine and spirit bottles of 50 milliliters or more carry a 15-cent deposit; those under 50 milliliters, 5 cents.

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The bill was endorsed by the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations, but Director Gregory Mineo wrote in his testimony that a changeover could create problems. Agency warehouses and stores have significant inventories already stickered at 15 cents, he wrote.

Opposing the bill were largely environmental groups who expressed fears that tinkering with the deposits could lead to greater pollution and municipal solid waste costs while handicapping redemption centers and charities.

Maine’s bottle bill, enacted in 1978, is one of the most successful in the country, Sarah Lakeman, Sustainable Maine project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, wrote in her testimony to the committee.

If the proposal were to pass, it would weaken Maine’s law, likely making it less effective, she wrote.

“The programs in Maine and Vermont are practically identical, and arguably the country’s most successful, because of our inclusion of so many containers and the higher deposit on wine and spirits. Further, nine out of 10 Canadian provinces have a bottle redemption program, most with split redemption structures and larger containers being redeemed for as high as 35 cents,” Lakeman wrote.

If Espling’s bill were enacted, Maine towns would have to handle an additional 8,000 tons of glass waste or more that would no longer be managed through redemption centers, which could cost taxpayers anywhere from $800,000 to $1.65 million per year, Lakeman estimated. She added that “the fiscal note attached to the bill is estimated at $150,000 for implementation. In addition, the state General Fund would lose its annual $350,000 share of unclaimed bottle deposits.”

Eliza Donoghue, senior policy and advocacy specialist at Maine Audubon, wrote that lowering the redemption rate would only serve to lessen the incentive for returning those bottles. In similar programs in other states, participation rates have risen along with the cost of the deposits, she wrote.

The bottle bill in its current form keeps bottles (litter) off our beaches, out of our waterways, and otherwise away from wildlife and wildlife habitat,” she wrote.

Alison Vanderhoof, president of CLYNK, a Maine-headquartered technology company that helps charities raise money through bottle returns, hailed Maine’s 90 percent redemption rate as enviable.

“This proposed change to the bottle bill was a head-scratcher for us,” she wrote. “We see no logic that says the state should be looking to give up income at this time, or be willing to enact a change that shortchanges nonprofits and their donors.

“And none of us should be in support of a change that at its core is hoping to lower our recycling rates, even if doing so makes money for some big distributors. lt seems perhaps the right level of homework has not been done.”

Last year, the Legislature voted to add to Maine’s bottle redemption program a 5-cent deposit on so-called “nips,” tiny bottles of spirits, despite a veto threat by Gov. Paul LePage.

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Nicholas Johnson tosses beer cans into a giant bag Wednesday afternoon at Roopers Beverage & Redemption on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

A bin full of returnables is ready to be sorted Wednesday afternoon at Roopers Beverage & Redemption on Sabattus Street in Lewiston. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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