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Monday, August 22, 2011

Polar set to fight bottle bill expansion

posted August 20, 2011 in the TELEGRAM & GAZETTE By John J. Monahan


Polar set to fight bottle bill expansion
BOTTLER FEARS INCREASED COSTS

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With the advent of curbside recycling in many communities and other public recycling programs for home waste available in almost every city and town, the deposit return system has become an inefficient collection system by comparison, Mr. Crowley said.

WORCESTER —  Polar Beverages, the local bottling company that prides itself on environmental responsibility, has found itself lined up against environmental groups from across the state as those groups try to bring the long-running debate over an expanded bottle bill into the voting booth.

The nation's largest independent soft drink bottler, Polar, which produces up to 80 million cases of soda, seltzer, juice, teas and other drinks each year, has joined up with a large group of bottlers, retailers, labor unions and other businesses to stop the effort.

At stake is the inclusion of water and juice bottles in the state's 5-cent return deposit program, a proposal that for more than a decade has been unable to draw majority support in the Legislature but has been revived year after year for reconsideration.

Critics point out the water bottles, juice bottles and other containers that would be added represent a minuscule percentage of the state's solid waste stream, as little as 0.12 percent. But where industry sees a waste stream molehill, environmentalists, adding up the 1 billion water and juice bottles used in the state each year, see a mountain of recycling potential.

Advocates, who include almost every environmental group in the state, more than 50 lawmakers and the governor, say the expanded deposit system will increase bottle recycling rates, provide millions in new revenue for local recycling and trash reduction programs, and reduce litter in parks, sport fields, streets and sidewalks around the state.

Earlier this month, groups backing the bottle bill expansion filed a petition with the attorney general's office to put the issue on the 2012 ballot. They would rather see the Legislature adopt the bill by May, but unless that body acts, the groups intend to press on with the ballot question, assuming they can get 69,811 signatures for the measure by mid-November.

Among the 16 people signing the initial petition notice was Fitchburg Mayor Lisa A. Wong, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former Gov. Michael Dukakis.

To Polar Executive Vice President Christopher J. Crowley, the proposal, which opponents say will increase costs for bottling companies and boost the price of soft drinks, would compound an already inefficient recycling system.

Back when there was no recycling in the state, he said, the current bottle bill, adopted 30 years ago after a fierce battle in the Legislature, made more sense. “It did a decent job, because there was no recycling then,” he said. “It's a good anti-litter bill, but it's not efficient.”

With the advent of curbside recycling in many communities and other public recycling programs for home waste available in almost every city and town, he said, the deposit return system has become an inefficient collection system by comparison. “It's been a pain in the neck and an expense all along,” Mr. Crowley said of the system, as he warned that expansion would increase costs and inefficiencies that would add to consumer drink prices.

“It costs about $50 a ton to pick up curbside,” he said, compared to the more than $500 per ton being spent collecting and processing bottles and cans. Distributors like Polar are required to cover the cost, which includes paying retailers a handling fee of 2.25 cents per container. Mr. Crowley said most of the Polar bottles end up being recycled in Michigan for materials used in making new bottles.

“There is a tremendous amount of energy involved in picking up all those empties,” he said. “It (the bottle bill expansion) would raise the price of all soft drinks and water.”

Under the bill, the handling fee paid to retailers would go up 1 cent to 3.25 cents per container.

Kenneth L. Kimmell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, is citing a recent state survey that disputes the cost and efficiency criticisms.

That survey, he said, indicated that the expansion would not require retailers to buy more machines for returns, as the machines are used only at 10 percent capacity.

Moreover, he said, expanding the bottle bill would cut down on water bottle litter, save cities and towns up to $7 million in reduced trash collection costs and increase recycling of water and juice containers, many of which are now dumped in trash for disposal.

Mr. Kimmell said the survey found no discernable higher costs for beverages in New York, Connecticut and Maine, states that include juice and water bottles in their deposit programs. He estimated the expanded bottle bill would capture about 750 million of the 1 billion containers that otherwise may end up in landfills and incinerators in the state each year.

In addition, annual unclaimed deposit money that reverts to the state would increase from $10 million to $15 million, which under the bill would be used on trash reduction and recycling programs.

Mr. Crowley said if the Legislature fails to act, and the environmental groups put the measure before voters, the coalition of opponents is ready to fight it.

“We almost have to defend ourselves because it is going to cost us so much more. From a cost-benefit analysis, it is worth fighting against,” he said.

He said he is hoping for better choices to meet the need for increased recycling of containers that people throwaway.

“Hopefully we can come up with real solutions to the problems of solid waste, not just window dressing,” Mr. Crowley said.

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