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With 'nip patrol' and nickels, Vernon seeks to combat growing problem of nip liquor bottles

Illustrative photo of mini shopping cart full of small alcohol bottles - Jameson whiskey, Camus and Martell cognacs, Havana club rum, Beefeater gin. Minsk, Belarus.
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Illustrative photo of mini shopping cart full of small alcohol bottles - Jameson whiskey, Camus and Martell cognacs, Havana club rum, Beefeater gin. Minsk, Belarus.

To live in the “Nutmeg State” is to — at some point — see a sea of empty 50 mL liquor bottles known as “nips” littering public areas. Michael Purcaro, Vernon’s town administrator and emergency risk manager, says the reason Connecticut is awash in these empty bottles is simple math.

"Nip sales have exponentially skyrocketed here in Vernon and across the state,” Purcaro said. “In Vernon alone, we have data that shows 1.94 million nips were sold (since October 2021), indicating the volume of these bottles — and their potential to cause littering problems and issues with driving while intoxicated."

Connecticut’s "Nickel-for-a-Nip" law, established in 2021, has channeled $8.9 million to municipalities from a 5-cent surcharge on nip bottles.

Connecticut encourages cities and towns to use their share for the cleanup of discarded nip bottles. But Vernon has gone a step further, instituting a campaign to prevent nip bottle litter. Purcaro is leading the effort. "We want to help people in the maximum way we can. We've done that by partnering with the Connecticut Department of Transportation in creating a program called 'Nip Responsibly,'" Purcaro said.

The "Nip Responsibly" initiative is working to tackle not only environmental concerns, but also the larger problem of impaired driving. A recent study showed nearly 38% of 2021 traffic deaths in Connecticut were caused by drunk driving. That's the sixth highest rate in the country.

"There's no good reason for you to be drinking nips in a car while you're driving, let alone throwing them out, polluting the environment,” Purcaro said. “If you're going to nip, do it in your home, in an appropriate establishment where you can consume it safely. It is not advisable to be consuming nips while you're driving under any circumstance. And definitely don't throw it out the window."

As for Connecticut's “Nickel-per-nip” law, state records show Vernon has received, to date, just over $97,000. Purcaro says his town has tried to be creative in using that money to clean up nip bottle litter.

"We partnered with a local Boy Scout troop and an organization called 'Opportunity Works,'” Purcaro said. “They were already picking up bottles as part of their day-to-day operations, which they would use for fundraising. And they were actually making good money doing this in various parts of the town and neighboring towns. So, we contracted with both of these groups, creating what's been affectionately known as the 'Nip Patrol.' They've brought in tons of material that would normally be sitting on the side of the road."

While acknowledging that Connecticut's "Nickel-Per-Nip" law has been an effective catalyst for cleaning up nip bottle litter, he said the measure Connecticut lawmakers did not choose would have been better. “The original plan of a deposit, I think, would have been more effective,” Purcaro said, “but that did not pass through the legislature.”

Explaining the difference, Purcaro said, "If you put a deposit, there's an immediate incentive for anyone finding these to pick it up. Because then you return it and you can get the deposit back, like an empty water bottle or beer can."

But one approach to the Connecticut’s nip problem that Purcaro does not favor is banning nips, as five towns in Massachusetts have done and a sixth will do next August. "Our approach has been one of partnership with the (Wine and Spirits) industry,” Purcaro said. “They have made it explicitly clear that this is a big part of their business and a growing market share.”

“It's a personal choice," he said, "and we're not trying to take that away from people."

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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