Capitol Recap: Lawmakers mull biggest expansion of Vermont's bottle deposit law in decades
For years, environmentalists have worried about the amount of plastic and glass bottles ending up in landfills across the state.
They’re calling to increase recycling rates for these products — which is why lawmakers at the Statehouse are currently considering a major expansion of Vermont’s bottle deposit law.
To help make sense of the bill for this week’s Capitol Recap, Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki spoke with senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Bob, can you break down this issue for us?
Bob Kinzel: Absolutely. It's really the first significant expansion of the bottle bill since the law was enacted back in 1972. And that was more than 50 years ago. This is the law that places a 5-cent deposit on soda and beer containers, and then you get the deposit back when you return the container.
Studies done by the state indicate that roughly 75% of bottles and cans with deposits are redeemed. Another 23% find their way into the single-source recycling stream, and just 1% or 2% end up in the landfill. So these are pretty strong numbers.
Why the expansion? It's because of the incredible growth in the use of plastic water bottles and sports energy drinks. The plan is to include them and wine bottles under the bottle deposit law. Middlebury Rep. Amy Sheldon is chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee, and the lead sponsor of this bill.
"When the bottle bill originally passed, we weren't drinking water out of plastic bottles by the billions. And even since the late to mid '90s when those products were introduced, 'till now, the sheer volume has increased significantly," she said.
Jenn, another key part of the bill puts the responsibility for the collection of these containers on the beverage producers. Rep. Sheldon says this provision is modeled after several other state collection programs, like the one where you can take an old energy-efficient light bulb back to the hardware store so it can be disposed of properly.
"They're like the paint program, mercury batteries, electronic waste. Those are other industries that have been asked to step up and reclaim their product at the end of life. And it's the surest way to get a clean recycling stream so that those products can be legitimately reused," Sheldon said.
And Jenn, these are called producer responsibility organizations — say that fast three times — or PROs. They're going to have several years to draft their plans. There are a number of different collection options. And the bill itself wouldn't go into effect until at least 2027.
I doubt I could say that three times fast! Bob, do you think this bill shifts the purpose of the original bottle deposit law?
Jenn, I really think it does. Because back in 1972, when the law passed, it was viewed as an anti-litter program. You know, the goal was to get these bottles and cans off of the highways, and it was very successful. Well, now the goal is to use this law to significantly boost the recycling rate for the huge number of plastic containers that are out there. Marcie Gallagher is an environmental advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
"It's kept the the roots of what the 1972 bill intended to do. You know, 'Producers, get your stuff off the roads.' And now it's kind of, 'Producers stop using virgin fossil fuels to create plastics,'" she said.
So I think, Jenn, it's very fair to say that the recycling and reuse of these products is really at the heart of this bill.
Well, Bob, it certainly sounds like some current issues are being addressed with this bill. But are there groups opposed to this legislation?
There certainly are, including the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. They say the current system is already overwhelming them and this bill makes it even worse. Erin Sigrist is the president of the organization.
"Our retailers and our redemption centers are incredibly stressed as well. There are many questions outstanding. And I think we can continue to have the conversation, but we cannot support expansion of the bottle bill until the system can manage it," she said.
And Jen, the expansion is also opposed by Casella. That's the state's largest waste management company. They say they'll have to raise tipping rates if all these plastic bottles are taken away from the company's current recycling streams. Kim Crosby is the environmental compliance director at Casella.
"When recycling facilities lose more of the valuable materials to the bottle bill system and must raise their fees in order to make up for the loss in revenue, we determined that the cost of recycling could increase by approximately 7% or more," she said.
Jenn, despite this opposition, the bill did pass the House Energy and Environment Committee this week on a 10-1 vote, and that's a very strong endorsement of this expansion.
A strong endorsement indeed. But what's the outlook for this bill?
I think it's good. I think it enjoys strong support in both the House and the Senate. I don't know if it's going to make it all the way through the legislative process in this first year of this session. But if it does pass, it could face a veto from Gov. Phil Scott, because Gov. Scott might want to look at other more voluntary ways to increase plastic recycling rates without using the bottle deposit law.
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