AUGUSTA — In 1976, Maine became one of the first states to adopt a bottle bill. The pioneering legislation was designed to clean up roadsides of discarded cans and bottles and to promote recycling, which at the time, was scrambling for a foothold in American culture.
Thirty-five years later, Maine is one of 10 states with a redemption law. Maine's is also one of the most successful, boasting a 90 percent recycling rate, according to state data.
The beverage industry, backed by large corporations such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co., has traditionally opposed the law, arguing that it's costly and adds handling fees and unnecessary transportation costs that get passed on to the consumer as a hidden tax.
In 1979, the industry attempted to repeal Maine's bottle bill. Eighty-five percent of voters rejected the effort.
This year, armed with new arguments and a sympathetic Republican Legislature, environmentalists fear the industry is again targeting the law. The beverage lobby says it's not interested in a full repeal, simply changes that deal with lowering handling costs and alleged redemption fraud.
Five bill requests dealing with the bottle bill have been submitted this session. Matt Prindiville, with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his group plans to fight four of them, including one that seeks an outright repeal of the law.
That request is sponsored by Sen. Thomas Martin, R-Benton, but it hasn't yet cleared the Revisor's Office. Martin couldn't be reached for comment.
Even if Martin presses the legislation, Prindiville isn't sure that's where the real battle will take place. He said lobbying efforts will likely go to bills such as one proposed by Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, who is sponsoring legislation that would exempt bottles and cans larger than 16 ounces from the redemption law. Larger bottles, she said, would simply be recycled with other plastics.
Prescott said her bill was designed to create consistency in the redemption law while lowering handling and transportation costs for distributors. She said the increase in single-stream recycling made it unlikely that larger bottles would end up on the side of the road.
"What I’d like to see is everything is 5 cents," she said. "I don’t want to put the small redemption centers out of business. That's not the intent here. But there's a lot of room taken up by these giant containers. There's a lot of storage cost for the redemption center."
The containers and handling costs are at the heart of the industry's argument to change the law.
According to news reports, Newell Augur, a lobbyist for the Maine Beverage Association, has said the industry pays about 4 cents per bottle in handling fees that cost the industry about $30 million a year.
Augur said it made more sense to follow the lead of states that have swapped out bottle bills for statewide single-stream recycling programs.
Prindiville acknowledged that container, handling and transportation costs are problems for distributors. However, he believes the task of storing and shipping bulky containers full of bottles and cans is a technical issue that could be solved without going to the extremes of the pending legislation.
Prindiville said Prescott's bill to redeem only 16-ounce bottles overlooks 20-ounce soda bottles that are commonly sold in vending machines and 1-liter bottles typically sold by water companies.
In addition, Prindiville said tossing bottles and cans into a statewide single-stream recycling program wouldn't achieve the same recycling rate as the bottle bill.
Single-stream recycling doesn't drive up recycling rates, he said. Curbside pickup does. In rural Maine, he said, curbside pickup isn't possible.
According to bottlebill.org, Canadian provinces have combined recycling and redemption programs so that most bottles and cans are collected with other recyclables. In New Brunswick, about 55 percent of residents have curbside recycling; in that same province, the redemption rate is about 75 percent.
In contrast, about 78 percent of Ontario residents have access to curbside pickup. The average redemption rate in 2007 and 2008 was 80 percent, but 94 percent for the items that are picked up curbside.
Prindiville said bills like Prescott's are ultimately designed to "chip away" at the redemption law. Proposals like that of Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, were more constructive, Prindiville said.
Rector's bill, LD 728, would change the redemption-law requirement to reduce the number of trips a distributor has to make to pick up items.
Nonetheless, Prindiville expects an uphill climb against the other bottle bill proposals, which will be backed by a beverage lobby that may be seeking a return on investment from the 2010 election.
The Maine Beverage Association donated to both parties, but most of its contributions, about $16,875, went to Republican candidates or political action committees.
The American Beverage Association, backed by Coke and Pepsi, gave $104,000 to the Republican Governors Association Maine PAC.
Dan Demeritt, spokesman for Gov. Paul LePage, said the administration hadn't yet taken a position on the bottle bill proposals.