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House votes to expand bottle law

Published: 4/18/2021 5:11:34 PM
Modified: 4/18/2021 5:11:33 PM

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House has passed a sweeping expansion of the state’s “bottle law” despite opposition to the legislative proposal from the state’s business and waste sectors.

By adding bottled water, juices, sports drinks, wine and certain craft alcohols to the list of redeemable beverage containers included in the bottle law, lawmakers say H.175 would double the number of beverage containers eligible for redemption, and then recycling, in the state.

The bill would impose a 5-cent redeemable deposit on the slate of new beverage containers.

“We live in a throwaway society, and the volume of waste discarded by each one of us is embarrassing,” Rep. Scott Campbell, D-St. Johnsbury, said on the virtual House floor Thursday afternoon. “This is a step — a small step — toward taking responsibility for reducing our waste stream.”

The lower chamber voted 99-46 that day to grant initial approval of the legislation, and then on a final vote Friday moved the bill to the Senate.

First enacted in 1973, Vermont’s bottle law mandated a 5- to 15-cent deposit on some beverages, which people could redeem at stores and redemption centers by returning disposable containers after they were used. The law cut down substantially on littering and helped increase recycling in its early years.

But as new kinds of single-use beverage containers have entered the market in recent decades, environmental groups have pushed the Legislature to broaden the list of containers covered by the law. The bottle law was amended to include liquor bottles in the 1990s but has otherwise remained the same as the original 1973 law.

Conservationists have pushed for an expansion on the grounds that it would cut down on fracking and increase the number of new containers made from reused materials. 

Advocates say one of the bill’s biggest impacts would be to funnel more waste into Vermont’s “closed-loop” recycling system. As markets like China cut down on accepting single-stream recyclables, placing an incentive on a wider swath of disposable containers will create a greater pool of clean, recyclable waste from which to make new containers, they said.

“That creates that closed loop, which currently is not always happening,” said Rep. Kristi Morris, D-Springfield, who worked on amending H.175 in the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Industry and waste-sector leaders, though, posit that the reforms would not substantially increase recycling, citing a 2013 Agency of Natural Resources report that found that an expanded bottle law would raise the program’s operating costs by around $11 million per year, while increasing the material the state recycles by only about 1%.

On Thursday, House Republicans voiced worries that the legislation would burden small business owners who would be tasked with processing a new wave of returnable items, and questioned whether they should be obligated to do so.

Under the current bottle law, stores that sell bottled beverages are legally required to redeem the bottle deposit and accept returned containers from purchasers — unless they are in an area with a specially designated redemption center nearby or are able to obtain an exemption.

Besides increasing the number of containers made from previously used bottles, lawmakers who support the measure estimate that the expanded redeemables list could spur a $1 million-per-year rise in funds the redemption process directs to the state’s Clean Water Initiative.

All funds that are not returned to containers’ purchasers are directed to that program under a 2018 law signed by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican. On Thursday, the governor signaled in an interview on Vermont Public Radio that he would side with business interests if the legislation arrived on his desk.

“I think that there are better approaches,” Scott said. “I think having single-source recycling has been a huge help. So, I think we should expand upon that” rather than expand the bottle law.

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