- Luke Eastman
First-time purchasers of beverages in Vermont could be forgiven their puzzlement over the state's bottle deposit law: Wine cooler containers require a 5-cent deposit; wine bottles don't. Cans from local Zero Gravity Craft Brewery carry a nickel deposit; cans from local Citizen Cider don't. And that plastic bottle of Poland Springs sparkling water gets returned, while the one without the bubbles goes in the blue recycling bin.
For years environmental advocates have worked to widen the scope of the state's bottle deposit law to cover the expanding universe of beverage brands and containers, especially the proliferation of single-use plastic water bottles.
They argue that requiring deposits for these bottles, too, would cut down on litter and ensure more beverage containers flow into a recycling stream that is generally cleaner and more likely to be remade into new products.
For years, efforts to change the law got nowhere, always batted back by the argument that the glass, aluminum and plastic beverage containers dutifully deposited into blue bins were still being recycled, just through a different — and more convenient, efficient and cost-effective — system.
That claim suffered a blow last year, when the Chittenden Solid Waste District admitted that instead of turning 18,000 tons of bottles from recycling bins into new glass, it had been crushing the containers and effectively dumping them without permits.
For years, the district used the material as fill "to repair a depression" in a closed Williston landfill, spread as base material beneath its large-scale composting operation, and pile high at the end of a road on its property, according to a 2020 settlement with the Attorney General's Office.
District officials argued for more than a year that they had done nothing wrong and that using the glass as fill was appropriate. Blue-bin glass, according to CSWD, is nearly worthless because of high transportation costs and because some of it is contaminated from being in the waste stream.
Eventually the district agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the accusations of illegal dumping.
While the settlement was steep, the real cost may have come to the district's reputation with lawmakers. Its arguments against expanding the bottle bill once carried weight in Montpelier. But this year, officials' repeated protests have proved far less effective.
Lawmakers listened patiently but skeptically as CSWD representatives outlined all the reasons why diverting more glass, aluminum and plastic containers from the blue bins would hurt their revenues and force them to increase fees.
Jennifer Holliday, director of public policy and communications for the district, said all the bill would do is shift an existing stream of recycling to a competing one.
"All that cost would be passed on to Vermonters," Holliday warned lawmakers in February.
The arguments seemed to fall on deaf ears, particularly in the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee, where Rep. James McCullough (D-Williston) curtly told Holliday they would not make policy based on "cherry-picked data."
"The credibility on the glass issue is looming very, very heavy for me, and I expect other representatives will bear that in mind as they consider your testimony," McCullough told her.
Last week, House members seemed unmoved by the waste district's concerns when they passed the bottle bill by a 99-46 vote. The bill would broaden the 5-cent deposit program to virtually all recyclable beverage containers with exceptions for dairy, plant-based milks and containers for which there is no recycling market, such as juice boxes. The measure now heads to the Senate; if it can't get a full airing there during this session, it will be at the front of the line for consideration next year.
While several factors likely contributed to the bill's traction this session, CSWD's glass dumping clearly helped crystallize the complex issue for lawmakers, according to Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which lobbied hard for passage.
"The loss of credibility from CSWD and the revelations about what was happening to glass in the system helped representatives understand an argument that we'd been making for a long time," Burns said, "which is that these materials are treated very differently."
The convenience of being able to throw multiple kinds of recyclable material — paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metal — into a single blue bin helped keep 225,122 tons of waste out of the landfill in 2019, according to the state.
That's a diversion rate of about 34 percent, a figure that has been gradually rising since Vermont passed its universal recycling law in 2012. The state faces the challenging goal of raising that rate to 50 percent by 2024, a key reason food scraps are no longer allowed in the waste stream.
But as the CSWD case demonstrated, keeping something out of the landfill by putting it in the blue bin doesn't necessarily mean it will be recycled into a usable product.
Some of the material, about 15 percent, ends up in the landfill anyway because it was either not recyclable in the first place or was contaminated. This happens most often when bottles still containing food are discarded in blue bins.
That's where the "bottle bill" recycling stream differs from blue bin recyclables and why supporters say it's worth the cost and inconvenience of expanding the system.
Glass, plastic and aluminum bottles returned for their nickel deposits are kept separate and remain cleaner than material jumbled together in the blue bin. Thus they are considered higher quality than blue-bin recyclables and increasingly prized by container manufacturers. Sixty percent of all the recycled glass used to create new glass containers comes from the 10 states in the nation that have bottle bill programs, also known as bottle redemption programs, according to Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, the largest trade group representing glass container manufacturers.
The industry wants to increase the percentage of recycled glass in its products from about one-third to one-half in coming years and supports expanding the number of containers covered by bottle bills across the nation, DeFife told lawmakers.
About 46 percent of the beverage containers sold in Vermont are covered by the bottle bill. That figure is 91 percent in Maine, where the law has long been more expansive.
Expanding what is covered by the 5-cent deposit to include non-carbonated water bottles, sports drinks, fruit drinks, teas and coffees has long been a goal of organizations such as VPIRG, which came to the legislature this year armed with surveys showing that 88 percent of Vermonters approve of it, too.
The group argued that shifting more material out of the blue bin and into the cleaner bottle bill recycling stream is more likely to result in the creation of actual recyclable products.
"A product is not recycled until it is made into another product," Rep. Kari Dolan (D-Waitsfield) said during the lengthy debate last week.
It takes 95 percent less energy to make a recycled aluminum can than one made from raw materials, 35 percent less for recycled glass and 30 percent less for recycled plastic, she noted.
Opposition to the bill was nevertheless fierce. Distributors successfully pushed back against the proposed increase in the deposit from 5 to 10 cents, which supporters had argued was necessary because the rate hadn't increased in nearly 50 years. They argued this would raise prices at the register for consumers, exacerbate the price imbalance between Vermont and New Hampshire, and lead to fraud.
"It's kind of a shell game," Bree Dietly, who represents the Beverage Association of Vermont, told lawmakers. "You're going to be moving a lot of containers from one recycling system into another recycling system."
Casella Waste Systems, Vermont's dominant trash hauler and the operator of the state's sole remaining landfill, disputed the idea the bill would keep significantly more recyclable material out of the landfill. Casella sends its crushed glass by rail to North Carolina and is exploring ways to use it on local road projects instead of sand, said Kim Crosby, the company's environmental compliance manager.
And manufacturers such as Justin Heilenbach, cofounder of Burlington's Citizen Cider, argued that due to pandemic supply shortages, it was the wrong time for lawmakers to force him to figure out how to start selling cans stamped as returnable. He didn't, however, try to make the case that it was unfair for him to have to play by the same rules as brewers, just that it has always been the "lay of the land" for cider producers to get a pass.
"When we started making cider 10 years ago, that's how it was written," Heilenbach said during a press conference meant to pressure lawmakers to drop the bill.
His appeal didn't work. If anything, lawmakers seemed emboldened to stand up to a waste industry that has historically had an outsize influence in Montpelier.
"This bill steps on big business' toes, and they've invested considerable resources and energy to defeat it," Rep. Scott Campbell (D-St. Johnsbury) said.
Campbell acknowledged that increasing the number of returnable containers that stores and redemption centers would have to accept, sort and store would create challenges. A number of Republican lawmakers with experience as store owners argued that, yet again, the burden would fall unfairly on small-business owners who may have neither the space nor the staff to accept a wider stream of recyclable material.
A convenience store owner himself, Rep. James Gregoire (R-Franklin) said the bill would create an "undue burden for the small mom-and-pop" stores around the state that, unlike larger retailers, can't afford the expense of reverse vending machines that simplify the process for retailers.
But Campbell said he trusted the industry could figure it out, just as it did after the original law was adopted in 1972 and after it was updated in the 1990s to add 15-cent deposits for liquor bottles.
"We live in a throwaway society," Campbell said. "The volume of waste discarded by each one of us is, in fact, embarrassing. This is a small step toward taking responsibility for reducing our waste stream."Correction, April 21, 2021: Statistics regarding what percentage of the containers sold in Vermont and Maine are covered by those states' bottle bills were mischaracterized in an earlier version of this story.