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Has Connecticut's "Bottle Bill" Changed From Environmental Law To Cash Cow?

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In its latest report, the state claimed over $33 million in unclaimed bottle deposits, according to data from the Department of Revenue Services. Meanwhile, industry bottlers and redemption center owners say the system is broken and in need of repair.

When you buy a container of soda, water, or beer, you pay five cents -- and if you return the bottle or can to be recycled, you get that money back. In Connecticut, the program is called “the bottle bill,” and it’s been around since 1980. But now, some are worried the whole system is on the verge of falling apart.

On its face, the bottle bill is simple: pay a five-cent deposit for soda, beer, or water at the cash register. When you pop the container into a recycling machine or bring it to a redemption center, that money is returned.

But the back end is more complex: a system of reimbursements between companies who make and distribute bottles and the people who take them back.

It’s a system that’s netted the state tens of millions of dollars in recent years, but some say it’s failing in its mission to protect the environment.

"Sooner or later, if the state doesn’t do anything -- there’s going to be less of these businesses. There’s going to be nowhere for them to go," said Francis Bartolomeo, owner of Fran’s Cans and Bart’s Bottles, a redemption center in Watertown. "I know it’s not health care, but the environment is pretty important, and it always has been to me."

Bartolomeo has been operating his redemption center for 11 years and currently employs six people. As he walked around the facility, bottles and cans were everywhere along with the smell of old beer.

Bartolomeo said that for every can or bottle he takes in, he gives the person returning it a nickel. That nickel is then reimbursed to him by the beverage manufacturer or distributor -- who also has to pay him a “handling fee.”

In Connecticut, handling fees work like this: for every container of water or soda that passes through Bartolomeo's business, he gets 2 cents. For every beer, he gets 1.5 cents).

Amanda Pianka, co-owner of M&M Redemption Center in Wallingford, said the handling fee was reasonable when the bottle bill started in 1980, but today it’s not.

"Here we are in 2017 -- minimum wage just went up to $10.10 January 1," she said. "Every year, my rates go up. My insurance, my rent, my utilities -- everything goes up. And we have not been compensated."

Other nearby states have higher handling fees. New York raised its fee in 2009 to three-and-a-half cents, which is also the fee in Vermont. In Maine, the fee is up to four cents.

"We would like to be paid equally to our counterparts in the Northeast. And there is really not a valid reason that any legislator - any senator can give us as to why we haven’t been compensated," said Pianka. 

Meanwhile, the state is getting compensated -- tens of millions of dollars annually -- off something called “unclaimed deposits.”

That's because in 2008 and 2009 Connecticut’s bottle bill was changed to, essentially, capitalize on laziness. If you toss a can into your curbside trash or recycling bin, instead of redeeming it for the 5 cent deposit -- your unclaimed nickel goes to the state.

In its latest report, the Department of Revenue Services reported lots of unclaimed nickels -- about $33.5 million. That money goes into the state’s general fund.

"When it was implemented, the beer wholesalers were able to keep unredeemed bottles to help us [defray] our costs of operating the bottle bill," said Jude Malone, executive director of the Connecticut Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents companies that are the middleman between the producers of beer and the stores that sell it.

Malone said her distributors do recoup some costs by selling salvaged aluminum cans to recyclers, but like redemption centers, beer distributors see their costs going up. She said they're paying out the aforementioned handling fees to redemption centers, paying drivers to haul the used bottles, and giving fees to operators of recycling machines in stores.

"The bottle bill isn’t fair for anybody involved: the grocery stores, the package stores, the wholesalers -- and redemption centers," Malone said. "We’re all in a very convoluted system that costs a lot of money to operate.

And while bottle bills can boost recycling rates, just how effective is a nickel in 2017 at bringing consumers back to return their bottles?

According to state data obtained by WNPR, quarterly redemption rates are trending slightly downward, with consumers redeeming an estimated 49 percent of bottles, according to the most recent four-quarter average for which data is available.


Mary Mushinsky is worried that if the bottle bill goes away entirely, recycling rates will drop. But she agrees the system needs to be fixed. Mushinsky is a state representative from Wallingford. She said one solution is increasing the handling fee for redemption centers to 3.5 cents per container.

"If another business didn’t get a price increase for 35 years, I think they’d be in trouble," Mushinsky said.

To that end, Mushinsky and Stratford Representative Joe Gresko have proposed legislation at the state capitol. Mushinsky said she’s also open to giving at least some of the state’s more than $30 million in unclaimed nickels back to distributors.

But getting that money back could be a tough sell for a state facing a projected budget deficit of $1.4 billion.

Back at the redemption center in Watertown, Francis Bartolomeo said if handling fees aren’t raised, he’ll eventually have to close.

"Honestly, we could move 45 minutes away, and go to New York, and be paid double what we’re paid in Connecticut -- and that’s absurd. It just really is," Bartolomeo said.

Meanwhile, advocates are hopeful Mushinsky’s bottle bill proposal will come up for public hearing in Hartford in the coming weeks.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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