For 14 years, supporters of the state’s bottle deposit law have been pushing to expand its reach to include a host of non-carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages such as bottled waters, juices, and iced teas. And for 14 years, they’ve come up empty on Beacon Hill, unable to even get an up-or-down vote on the measure in either chamber.

This year could be No. 15, even though the bill has 80 legislative sponsors, the backing of the governor, the support of over 200 cities and towns, and what appears to be strong popular support. (A MassINC Polling Group survey last year indicated 77 percent of the public supports the expansion.)

The expanded bottle bill was banned from the budget by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and a legislative committee has placed the bill on hold until June 15, two weeks before the close of the session and another trip to the legislative graveyard. Committee officials say they are currently trying to find common ground between proponents and opponents, but that’s news to the two sides.

The bottle deposit bill is a perfect example of how opponents of legislation, even popular legislation, have the advantage on Beacon Hill. It’s easier to block a bill from becoming law than it is to get one passed.

“The bottle bill is a classic law that has a very wide but relatively small benefit for a lot of people, and a larger concentrated harm, or cost, for a small number of people,” says Ken Kimmel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environment. “People who are affected negatively by these laws have a real incentive to participate very vigorously in the political process, and all of us out there who benefit from it, we care about it, but we aren’t going to spend the time and effort that the people who experience a cost will spend.”   

Gov. Deval Patrick included the expanded bottle deposit law in his budget proposal for next year, citing the projected $20 million in unredeemed deposits as a potential source of revenue for the state. Yet the measure was removed by DeLeo, who referred to it as “just another form of taxation” in an interview on WBZ-TV in January.

DeLeo declined to be interviewed for this story, but his characterization of an expanded bottle deposit law as another form of taxation isn’t accurate.  The 5-cent deposit paid by the consumer is refundable upon return of the bottle or can.

“A tax, by definition, is something you are obligated to pay,” Kimmel says. “I’ve never heard of a tax that’s refundable. Even Barbara Anderson [of Citizens for Limited Taxation], who is someone who has some credibility in defining what a tax is, or isn’t, says it’s not a tax.” 

Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, says the speaker knows better. “The speaker isn’t stupid,” she says. “He knows this isn’t a tax.” 

So what’s going on?

Kimmel says he thinks the speaker would like to see the issue decided on its own environmental merits and not as part of a broader spending bill. Indeed, he told supporters of the bill as much in a meeting earlier this year, where he also suggested their support in the House was thin.

Domenitz says members of the House and Senate President Therese Murray have told her DeLeo opposes the bottle law expansion, but DeLeo insists he’s under pressure from House members not to bring the bill up for a vote. Domenitz can’t help but recall the ‘he said, she said’ of a high school cafeteria. “The legislature shouldn’t operate like this,” she says. “It is unacceptable that it hasn’t come to a vote.”

The primary opposition to an expanded bottle deposit law comes from restaurants and supermarkets that don’t want to deal with the returns, and beverage manufactures who would have to shoulder the proposed 1 cent increase to the current 2 ½-cent handling fee for each redeemed container. They argue that, with the availability of curbside recycling programs in most communities, the bottle law has become outdated. Expansion of the law, they say, would be a costly burden on consumers, retailers, and manufacturers alike.

In July of last year, at the first and only public hearing on the current bill, Kevin Dietly, a consultant working for the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents supermarket interests, argued that an expanded bottle law  would add 4.8 cents to the cost of each beverage at the retail level (on top of the refundable 5-cent deposit). He also claimed that the proposed expansion of the law would compound problems of fraud, while only increasing overall recycling in the state by a fraction of a percent.

“This is an archaic approach,” says Chris Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association. “The committee looks at this bill and says ‘it doesn’t make sense.’”

But for most industry claims, there have been strong counter-arguments from environmentalists. No meaningful difference in price has been found between retail beverages in states with and without bottle laws. And the issue of inter-state redemption fraud (where deposit containers purchased in states which don’t have bottle laws, such as New Hampshire, are redeemed in states which do) is easily addressed by assigning different bar codes for products in non-deposit states (Coca-Cola has already started doing this).  

“A lot of arguments have been trotted out over the years, and we’ve taken each one at face value, and done a lot of study and research and investigation, and we really have found each one to be lacking,” says Kimmel. “We know of no other system that is nearly as effective, or as cost effective, and all we’re talking about is expanding something that has been proven to work.”

Homepage photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis and published under a Creative Commons license.