AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Environmental Committee on Monday ditched several proposals that would have made significant changes to Maine’s 35-year-old bottle bill.
The committee unanimously passed one omnibus bill that deals primarily with fraud issues within the state’s bottle redemption law. It rejected two of the most controversial bills that proposed exempting larger containers from the law.
The panel’s decision effectively assures that the state’s redemption law will remain intact, absent major amendments when the remaining bill goes to the full Legislature for passage.
Environmentalists, redemption center owners and others had worried that several of the seven bills introduced this session would have weakened a law long opposed by the beverage industry.
An eighth proposal called for outright repeal of the law, but that bill was withdrawn by its sponsor.
Matt Prindiville, a project director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his group was pleased that the committee upheld Maine’s “most successful recycling program.”
The beverage industry backed several of the bills, including one that exempted bottles larger than 28 fluid ounces from the redemption law. The industry, backed by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, said the larger containers should be recycled in municipal waste systems.
The Maine Beverage Association, representing the industry, said handling fees associated with the bottle bill were passed on to Maine consumers in a hidden tax on soft drinks and other beverages.
Those arguments didn’t win over the the Environmental Committee. The panel unanimously rejected the 28-ounce exemption and an accompanying provision that would have reduced the 15-cent deposit on wine bottles to 5 cents.
The panel also unanimously shot down a bill that would have exempted wine bottles from the redemption law.
Those decisions followed arguments by redemption center owners who said removing the larger bottles would cut revenues and cost jobs.
The bills were also opposed by environmental and recycling groups, who said exempting the large containers could potentially reduce recycling rates.
The Maine Municipal Association said putting large containers in municipal recycling streams could cost communities.
In April, the Container Recycling Institute testified that the bills would reduce recycling rates.
Newell Augur, director of the Maine Beverage Association, said he was disappointed that the committee wasn’t willing to look at ways to improve efficiency in the bottle law.
“Unfortunately, a lot of individuals and special-interest groups have created a cottage industry out of the bottle bill,” Augur said. “These folks worked very hard to preserve the status quo.”
Augur said the industry would continue to seek ways to improve the law.
“These issues are not going to go away,” he said.
In 1976, Maine became one of the first states to adopt a bottle law. 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 one of the most successful, boasting a 90 percent recycling rate, according to state data.
The beverage industry 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 law via referendum. Eighty-five percent of voters rejected the effort.
The containers and handling costs are at the heart of the industry’s argument to change the law. 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.
Groups like the Container Recycling Institute counter that the industry also collects $6 million in unredeemed deposits each year.