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Column: Expanded bottle bill won’t keep Vermont clean

For the Valley News
Published: 4/30/2021 12:00:05 PM
Modified: 4/30/2021 12:00:03 PM

The expanded bottle bill passed by the Vermont House will not achieve virtually any of the goals it sets out to achieve, except to slightly reduce glass contamination at recycling facilities and to funnel more consumer money into clean-up of Lake Champlain, about 100 miles from the Upper Valley.

I write this as a partner in a firm that has completed virtually all the studies for Northeast state governments on bottle bills over the past two decades and the most recent statewide litter study in the U.S. (for the state of Delaware); as a member of the International Working Group on marine plastic pollution; and, personally, as the Greenup Day coordinator for West Windsor for the past 20 plus years. (Full disclosure: We have also analyzed bottle bill costs and fraud for the Coca Cola Co.)

What our data show is that the expanded bottle bill will not reduce roadside litter of bottles and cans — people drinking alcohol in their cars simply don’t consider a nickel worth the cost of being pulled over. Virtually no one walks through West Windsor collecting nickels off the side of the road — they are always there on Greenup Day, and even if they did they would hardly make a dent in litter which consists of roughly 50 percent plastic waste, of which roughly 5 percent is plastic bottles.

What the expanded bottle bill will do is assure that consumers in the Upper Valley pay an extra 48 cents for every six-pack of water or juice they buy in Vermont — the consumer not only pays the nickel, which they get back if they return the bottle, but a 3-cent handling fee they don’t get back. Also, it will encourage yet more of us to buy that beverage in New Hampshire, making it even harder for Vermont retailers to compete; and increase fraudulent returns, since that Reverse Vending Machine in Vermont stores can’t distinguish a container purchased in Vermont from one purchased in New Hampshire.

Just as importantly, the expanded bottle bill will take some of those plastic bottles and aluminum cans out of our curbside and drop-off recycling programs, removing two important revenue streams from the sale of recycled aluminum and plastics with it; cost Vermonters roughly $10 million extra in handling fees and needless driving to redemption centers (our surveys of consumer behavior in Vermont indicate that consumers who redeemed deposit containers during the year of our survey made 950,000 special trips and drove 7.6 million miles in a year to redeem their containers), while removing less than 1% from our landfills. The program also would send a bunch of money to the clean water fund in the form of a hidden tax, since many Vermonters will not return the deposits, resulting in the state keeping their money.

There is no doubt that plastic pollution is a serious problem in the U.S. and globally, but the Vermont House bought into a solution that worked well in the 1970s, but completely fails to address the much broader problem of excess plastic packaging flooding our stores and our environment. It essentially lets the vast majority of consumer products companies off the hook because they don’t sell beverages, but they do sell millions of pounds of plastic packaging and should be held accountable for the impact of that packaging on the environment.

There are numerous bills under consideration by legislatures across the country to address this through extended producer responsibility, but the Vermont House chose to ignore these solutions in favor of what looks on the surface like a simple solution.

Ted Siegler is a resource economist with 40 years of experience in solid waste management. He lives in West Windsor.

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