New bottle bill backers favor legislative route

Backers of a long-stalled effort to expand the state’s 30-year-old bottle recycling law by adding a 5-cent deposit to the cost of bottled waters, juices and sports drinks have abandoned their push to take the plan to the voters in 2012, advocates told the News Service on Thursday.

The proposal’s supporters instead described plans to refocus their efforts on getting a bill through the Legislature, where they claim to have garnered majority support since they filed the ballot question in August.

“It just seems like common sense,” Janet Domenitz, executive of MassPIRG, a consumer advocacy group that supports the proposal.

In a phone interview, Domenitz argued that in addition to majority backing in the House and Senate and the support of Gov. Deval Patrick, the bill has polled favorably among Massachusetts residents, is supported by more than 200 cities and towns, and is backed by more than 90 advocacy organizations.

“Given this mandate both inside and outside the State House, we now believe the best strategy to update the most successful recycling program in the state is in the Legislature,” said James McCaffrey, director of the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, in a statement announcing the decision.

Domenitz added that backers of the ballot measure had been girding for a clash with “well-heeled” opponents of the bottle recycling bill, from “the liquor lobby” to Coca Cola.

“We had reason to believe that they were already amassing dollars to spend against us,” she said. “They’re very well-heeled. They’re very well-financed.”

Opponents of the proposal, known familiarly as the bottle bill, claimed the abandonment of the ballot effort proved they had seized momentum.

“Our polling has shown that consumers want a single-stream system where we’re building up on our comprehensive recycling infrastructure,” said Christopher Flynn, president of the Massachusetts Food Association, a trade association for food stores.

Flynn doubted proponents’ suggestion that lawmakers would line up in support of their proposal, contending that it won’t even be released from the legislative committee reviewing it.

“I have not heard it was going to come out and I would be surprised if it did based on the fact that we made a pretty good case,” he said. “The reason this hasn’t passed in all these years out of committee is because it isn’t a good idea. This is not the answer to what we should be looking at. We should be looking at enhancing our comprehensive curbside programs.”

Although the bill has the support of Gov. Deval Patrick, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, environmentalists and dozens of lawmakers, it has also shown little momentum among the legislative leaders who typically drive the agenda on Beacon Hill.

Speaker Robert DeLeo has called the plan a tax – a characterization embraced by opponents of the bill but ripped by proponents as misleading – and neither he nor Senate President Therese Murray have identified the bill as a part of their legislative agenda.

Under the state’s current bottle recycling law, adopted in the early1980s, consumers pay an extra five cents for most carbonated beverages that can be redeemed at recycling centers across the state. Since the law passed, however, non-carbonated drinks like bottled water, sports drinks and juices, have proliferated.

Adding a 5-cent deposit to these beverages, proponents say, would incentivize consumers to recycle them, relieving municipalities of some processing costs, helping the environment and minimizing litter. The Department of Environment Protection estimates that more than 30,000 tons of non-carbonated beverage bottles are discarded in landfills, burned as waste or littered every year.

In addition, revenue from unredeemed bottles would be directed to state coffers, providing an estimated $15 million to $20 million a year for government at a time when many programs are operating on reduced budgets as a result of economic instability, backers say.

Critics of the proposal deride the deposit as a tax and warn that it could overburden stores required to collect and store redeemed bottles, give border states without deposit laws a competitive edge, and result in fraud when people bring bottles from outside the state into Massachusetts to cash in on the deposits.

After years of failed efforts to win legislative support for an expanded bottle deposit law, frustrated proponents announced an effort this summer to take their proposal to the 2012 state ballot. Initial signers of the effort included Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, former Gov. Michael Dukakis, Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, as well as environmental advocates Phil Sego and George Bachrach.

The proposal was certified in August by Attorney General Martha Coakley, and proponents would have needed to collect about 69,000 valid signatures – typically an expensive, months-long effort – in order to proceed to the ballot.

The bill is now awaiting action in the Legislature’s Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, co-chaired by Rep. John Keenan (D-Salem) and Sen. Benjamin Downing (D-Pittsfield). The committee held a hearing on the bill on July 20.