Once Again, Legislature Kicks the Can of Litter Reduction Down Trash-Filled Road
June 13, 2023
Good luck finding a single person in Rhode Island who loves the rivers of empty bottles, cans, and random plastic pieces strewn along the state’s roads and beaches. Pose a question about litter, and you will hear that people are perfectly appalled by it, and by the state’s meager recycling rates.
Even so, the General Assembly sidelined two bills that, in other states, have shown a proven and powerful impact on reducing litter and increasing recycling rates for materials, such as plastic, that could be repurposed to make new commodities.
The current House and Senate bottle deposit-and-return bills (H5502 and S0753) — the latest in a series of similar failed bills over past years — were shot down Monday night by the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee and replaced by a bill to create a special study commission to plan and propose a future bottle bill.
Under the substitute bill, the study commission would be empowered to work from September through June 2024, a month that coincides with the end of next year’s legislative session.
Many members of the committee expressed regret that the bottle bill did not pass, noting it was one of the committee’s highest priorities in the current session.
Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, said she was “disappointed” to hear that the study commission was empowered to work until next June. “I want to know if the commission could finish its work by March . Leaving the end [of the commission’s work] ‘til June means we will not get to this until 2025.”
No one else spoke to this point and the end date of the study commission remained unchanged for the final vote.
The same study commission also will look at extended producer responsibility (EPR) for packaging bill (H5091), which made a second unsuccessful appearance before the General Assembly this year, following 2022. An EPR law for packaging is similar to bottle bills but broader in scope.
Rep. David Bennett, D-Warwick, the committee chairman, said House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, proposed the study commission because he believed the current bottle bill needed more work and input from all affected parties.
“This was the committee’s No. 1 ask,” Bennett said, but the “powers that be” believed the bill to be incomplete. “There are a lot of things we have to pound out.”
A statement from Shekarchi’s office said the bills would not see a vote this year because “much more detail is needed about how bottle bills are working in other states before we consider such a significant bill … If a bottle bill is the best way to attack litter, we want to make sure we adopt the best piece of legislation possible, and that will only come through a comprehensive study commission that will make recommendations to the General Assembly for our next legislative session.”
Both the bottle and EPR bills require that producers of commodities do the work and pay the costs of disposing of their packaging, from alcohol nips and detergent bottles under a bottle bill, to Amazon envelopes and packaging materials of every description under the EPR for a packaging bill.
The objective of these bills is to get trash off the roads and out of the rivers; encourage recycling by consumers and reuse of raw materials; reduce the climate- and health-harming production of virgin plastics; and to move the costs of solid waste handling and disposal off taxpayers and municipalities and onto the profit-earning corporations that bring the products into stores and homes.
According to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, in 2022, the state recycling rate or “overall diversion rate” was 31.8%. This figure includes mixed recyclables, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Protection mandatory materials, and materials listed as other recycling.
In the arena of extended producer responsibility laws, hopes were raised and dashed in New York State on June 9 when the state’s legislative session ended with no action on an EPR bill for packaging, called the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act. Pressure was exerted by the American Chemistry Council, the Farm Bureau, the Restaurant Association, Kraft Foods, and ExxonMobil.
Melissa Valliant, spokesperson for the group Beyond Plastics, said, “The chemical industry spent $605,000 on lobbyists this year to kill the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act in New York. The lawmakers and environmentalists fighting to save our planet from plastic are going against Goliath, but I believe good will overcome greed with time and unrelenting effort. Local and state governments have led the way on plastics regulation for decades now, in spite of the plastics and petrochemical industries’ tactics. It’s disheartening when governments give in to the companies creating the plastic pollution crisis.”
Bottle bills fight for traction
Bottle bills have been passed in 10 states, from the first one, in 1971, in Oregon, to the most recent, in 2002, in Hawaii. The push has slowed in the past two decades, unless you count bills that attempt to revise existing bottle deposit laws, like including newfangled beverages that were unknown in the 1970s: bottled and flavored water, iced tea, energy drinks, sports drinks, kombucha.
Bottle deposit-and-return bills are facing an uphill fight, even though beverage container litter as a proportion of all litter is 66% less in regions with a deposit-and-return system than without one, according to a 2014 study by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.
Stated differently, in the United States, on average, 27% of beverage containers with no deposit are collected for recycling while 72% of containers in a deposit-and-return system are collected for recycling, according to the Container Recycling Institute.
“Bottle bills have been passed in other states because they make sense; the benefits are endless,” said Valliant, of Beyond Plastics.
Nationally, opponents of bottle bills include the hard-fighting and high-spending lobbyists of big beverage companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Keurig Dr Pepper.
“It’s been 20 years since the last bottle bill was passed,” Valliant said. “It goes to show how effective the industry has been in thwarting legislation.”
At the Rhode Island Statehouse, the loudest speakers against bottle bills include people representing liquor, grocery, and convenience stores, who say bottle bills add lots of work and complications to their businesses and note that customers perceive the deposit fee as a “tax.”
Like other liquor store owners, Nick Fede Jr., director of the Rhode Island Liquor Operators Collaborative, objects to bottle bills because stores would have to accept returns and pay out deposits for all bottles and cans of any type they sell, meaning they need to set aside storage space, keep the area clean, handle the payments between consumer and distributors, and even settle scuffles among bottle-bearing customers.
Under the Rhode Island bill, a distributor or bottler charges a 10-cent deposit when it delivers beverages to a store, which, in turn, charges a 10-cent deposit per bottle or can to a customer. When a customer returns the empty containers to a store or redemption center, the store pays the customer 10 cents per container. The store returns the empty containers to a distributor, which pays 10 cents per container to the store. Costs of the system in Rhode Island under the bill would be supported by a 3.5% container handling fee paid by the distributors, and by unclaimed deposits paid to and managed by the state.
Fede complained mostly about the perceived high costs to customers imposed by a bottle bill. He said a 30-pack of Budweiser beer priced at $26.75 would rise to $29.75 with the 10-cent per bottle deposit.
“People look at what things cost,” Fede said. “Unredeemed bottle deposits are viewed by some consumers as a tax.” He said liquor store owners fear that customers would take their business across the border to Massachusetts, where a different combination of sales and excise taxes could make beverages cheaper on the shelf. (Massachusetts has had a 5-cent bottle bill since the early 1980s.)
“The handling fees in the bill don’t cover our costs,” Fede said. “Small businesses here get taxed very highly. It is frustrating when people try to tell us how to do business when it is hard enough to do business in the first place.”
Bills open door to agitation against other retail taxes
Periodic resurrections of a bottle bill at the Statehouse also give liquor store owners a soapbox to complain about other state taxes and fees that anger them. In effect, bottle bills can get held hostage to longstanding arguments over fees that have rankled retailers for years, such as the 1984 Litter Control Tax, collected from businesses that sell food or beverages.
In its first 10 years, the litter tax helped pay for public anti-littering programs. In 1995 the tax revenues were moved into the state’s general fund and the anti-littering programs evaporated. Store owners argue that the state should drop the bottle bill idea and use the litter tax, which, combined with a separate beverage container tax, raised $3.9 million in 2021, for litter control, the original intent.
An appropriations bill now before the General Assembly (H5200) would repeal the litter tax.
Jed Thorp, state director of Clean Water Action, part of a coalition of Rhode Island environmental groups that support the bottle bill, said he sympathizes with the hassles store owners could face.
“Space and storage do present a challenge,” Thorp said. “But Massachusetts and Maine [which also has a bottle bill] have figured it out. There was not mass closing of liquor stores when those states passed their bills.”
Thorp disagreed that a bottle bill would send customers across the state line to Massachusetts. “It is hard to argue that your state is at a disadvantage if you adopt a law that another state has had for 40 years.”
Thorp indicated that liquor stores’ fights over the bottle bill could be a pretext to push back against other taxes and fees. “If the bottle bill puts them at a disadvantage, it is not because of the bottle bill; it is because of the tax structure,” he said. “Bottle bills have given stores a venue to complain about the bigger picture of how their industry is taxed and regulated by the state.”
Thorp doesn’t see the logic of eliminating the litter tax. The tax was created originally to give beverage sellers some skin in the litter-solution game.
“In the early to mid-’80s, when bottle bills were being discussed, Rhode Island opted out of bottle bills and decided on a litter tax,” Thorp said. “[The state] said it was fair for the [beverage] industry to be part of a solution to litter, via the litter tax. Now the one thing we did in lieu of a bottle bill is going away. I say, ‘Fix the litter tax and make it go to the purpose it was supposed to go to.’”
He noted, “The liquor lobby in Rhode Island traditionally has had a lot of power.”
Bottle bill laws include a return-to-retail component, in which retail stores must accept returns for all types of beverages sold at that store. Other return options are automated reverse vending machines, at stores or elsewhere, and free-standing redemption centers, located in public places and often staffed to do hand-counting, maintenance, and customer assistance.
Oregon, which passed the first bottle bill 52 years ago, is considered a global leader, with a recycling rate of 89%. The state has return-to-retail along with a complex system of full-service, staffed redemption centers, open daily.
At a public hearing in March on the bottle bill before the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, store owners showed great enthusiasm for independent redemption centers as a way to get the bottle-return job off their properties.
But return-to-retail was always considered an essential convenience for consumers, and Thorp said he knows of no bottle bill system that doesn’t include return-to-retail.
Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, has spent years promoting that state’s bottle bill, first passed in 1982. She defends the convenience aspect of return-to-retail, saying, “We need it to work for customers, too, not just for the stores.”
She is agog at store owners’ failure to see the value in having customers flowing into their stores to drop off bottles and claim deposits, because it is at those moments that a lot of new spending, including impulse buys, can occur.
“When I go to a store [with bottles] to get my 30 cents back, I say to myself, ‘While I’m here I am going to get cake mix and some other things I need.’ I cannot understand why these [stores] do not quantify the money they make from people like me,” Domenitz said.
Lobbyists with loaded checkbooks
State-level complaints about bottle bills often come from the mouths of beverage retailers, but bottle bill supporters say the big national beverage brands throw tons of money and lobbying power against these bills. Domenitz lets fly, with apologies, words like “bullshit” and “lies” when she speaks of lobbying campaigns against bottle bills.
The Massachusetts bill, now 40 years old, performs badly, with a return rate in 2019 of 50%, about the same as Connecticut’s, another badly performing law. For years, Domenitz said, Massachusetts environmentalists have tried to update the bottle bill by raising the per-container deposit to 10 cents from the original 5 cents, and by including beverages not common in the early 1980s: bottled water, iced tea, energy drinks, vitamin drinks, sports drinks.
The law was simply behind the times, Domenitz said, and “people got out of the practice of redemption because what they were drinking day-to-day was not covered by the law.” In 2014, the state presented a ballot measure to update the bottle bill law by raising the deposit to 10 cents and widening the list of eligible beverages. One element of the ballot question was an automatic increase to the deposit fee every five years, indexed to inflation.
Early on in the campaign for the ballot measure, 72% of voters were in favor, Domenitz said. In the weeks before voting day, the beverage industry spent $10 million against the ballot question — half of that from the American Beverage Association — and the ballot measure failed.
An Associated Press article in September 2014 stated, “Opponents say there are better, more efficient ways to increase recycling, like expanding curbside recycling pickup. They say the expansion would cost consumers $60 million and point out that it would let the state government raise fees every five years without a vote.”
“Voters turned it down because they were lied to,” Domenitz said.
At the Rhode Island House Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing in March on the bottle bill and EPR bill, about five dozen persons or groups filed written testimony. One heavy hitter from the beverage industry on a national level was the American Beverage Association (ABA), a trade association whose members include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Keurig Dr Pepper.
The ABA’s letter objected to what it called “a decentralized system rife with redundant infrastructure and burdensome sorting requirements; a lack [of] coordination and accountability; an outdated model of redemption access, mandating reverse vending machines at virtually every retail location with independent redemption centers free to spring up anywhere.”
The letter said if the bill’s goal of 90% redemption by 2026 was not achieved, the deposit would rise to 15 cents, at which point the flow of “fraudulent” redemption from Connecticut and Massachusetts should allow the state to meet the goal; if not, the deposit would go up again. (Bottles have QR codes designed to block them from being redeemed outside of the state of purchase.)
The ABA also objected to the “heavy hand” the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management would have in managing the system. ABA said DEM may raise deposits on containers, raise the handling fee subsidy, and collect unclaimed deposits and distribute them as grants and loans to operate the system. Finally, the ABA complained that “the bill puts unclaimed deposits in the DEM’s hands to disburse, rather than leaving these funds with distributors to help underwrite the cost of the system.”
Greenwashing and wishcycling
Beyond Plastics fired back at one element of the ABA’s letter, which said that in 2019, “the beverage industry launched Every Bottle Back, a commitment with leading environmental and recycling groups to invest $100 million in improvements to collection system. This investment will reduce new plastic use by increasing collection of the industry’s valuable bottles so they can be remade into new ones.”
The Every Bottle Back website promises to document the amount of recycling the program would achieve. Asked for statistics on the amount of recycling via Every Bottle Back, a spokeswoman for the ABA wrote, “the plastic footprint measure looks at our entire plastic footprint by volume and doesn’t segment it into bottles and cans per state.”
Beyond Plastics called the Every Bottle Back campaign “greenwashing” and wrote in late March that the National Advertising Review Board agreed. That board recommended that the ABA change its claims regarding the use of recycled materials.
Essentially, the review board implied that ABA was faking or at least exaggerating its claims about recycling by reporting its “aspirations” for recycling as facts. Beyond Plastics wrote, “The review board panel concluded that certain statements in the beverage industry’s ‘Every Bottle Back’ campaign conveyed unsupported claims to consumers, conflating current recycling practices and outcomes with aspirational practices and outcomes.”
Environmentalists and bottle bill supporters also are continually irked by the chasing arrow symbol on the bottom of plastic consumer items. The designation of Nos. 1 through 5 within the triangle of arrows is called the “resin identification code,” and was invented by and for use by the plastics industry in 1988 simply to identify different categories of plastics.
It is not an indicator of whether an item can be recycled, even though that is a widespread — and incorrect — impression among consumers, many of whom may throw all plastics with a chasing arrow into a recycling bin thinking they are helping the environment, in a well-intended practice known as wishcycling.
In fact, only plastic type No. 1, representing PETE or polyethylene terephthalate, and No. 2, representing HDPE or high-density polyethylene, can be effectively recycled.
A report by Greenpeace states that plastics Nos. 1 and 2 are the only plastics that can be legitimately called recyclable and actually recycled “because they are the only resins that have sufficient market demand and domestic recycling/reprocessing capacity.” Experts say only 9% of all plastics ever created have been recycled.
Adrienne Esposito, a Long Island resident and executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, worked to promote the New York extended producer responsibility for packaging bill. In a broad Brooklyn bray that demands attention, Esposito insisted, “We need to create a more sustainable policy. We have to put responsibility on producers to produce less packaging. It is the only thing that makes sense.”