Friends of the Saugatucket is a community clean cleanup group that has collected more than 75,000 nips along the Saugatucket River this year. /Courtesy Bill McCusker
PROVIDENCE — No one likes litter.
But how is it even possible to cut down on the beverage bottles and miniature alcohol containers – or “nips” – strewn across sidewalks, contaminating waterways and taking up valued landfill space?
Environmentalists insist a deposit-refund program on recyclable bottles and cans is a tested plan to reduce litter and increase recycling. Business groups decry the unfair burden for retailers forced to collect and process empty bottles.
The back and forth played out for hours Thursday as the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources considered two proposals, one creating an all-encompassing “bottle bill” as well as one specifically for nips.
The bottle bill, introduced by Rep. Carol McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, establishes a 10-cent refundable deposit program for recyclable beverage containers: plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans, including nips. Following similar programs in 10 other states — including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont — customers would pay a 10-cent fee when they buy that six-pack or soda bottle at the store. They can then return the empty bottle to any retailer that sells those products or an independent, privately-run redemption center, and get their money back.
The legislation offers a 3.5-cent handling fee per bottle for redemption centers and retailers that collect empty bottles.
Status quo isn’t working
Less than one-third of bottles and cans that can be recycled in Rhode Island are recycled, according to a January report by the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the quasi-public agency that runs the state’s Central Landfill and Material Recycling Facility.
“Much of what we think is recycled…is not actually recycled,” said Jed Thorp, Rhode Island state director for Clean Water Action. “What we’re doing isn’t working.”
Most bottles and cans end up in the landfill or as litter. Even when people try to recycle them in their household bins, it doesn’t always work out: if the load is “contaminated” with non-recyclable trash, or if glass containers break, they can’t be separated out for recycling. Nips are a particular problem, as they are too small to be separated out by recycling equipment, according to landfill operators.
A separate proposal introduced by Rep. David Bennett, a Warwick Democrat, targets nips only, establishing a 25-cent deposit-refund program for the 1.5-milliliter, miniature alcohol bottles abundant on streets and shorelines.
Anything worth having is a battle. We also have more answers this year for how to implement this.
– Rep. Carol McEntee of South Kingstown
Proponents rattled off eye-popping statistics to back up their support: 17,000 tons of recyclable bottles and cans piled up in the landfill each year, 33,000 beverage containers removed from state shores during a three-month cleanup event in 2022, and 75,000 nips collected by local watershed volunteers over the last year. Many also cited a 2021 study by the Container Recycling Institute which found that bottle bills increased recycling rates for beverage containers ending up as litter by 70 to 84%.
“This bill is our best chance at addressing [litter and pollution] that works for small businesses, works for big businesses, works for Rhode Island,” said Kevin Budris, advocacy director for national nonprofit Just Zero.
The business community disagreed.
Passing on burden to small businesses?
“We would lose between 14% and 20% of our business,” said Frank Fede, owner of Kingstown Liquor Mart.
Fede encouraged lawmakers to consider better education and enforcement rather than passing on costs and administrative responsibilities to small businesses.
Then there’s the problem of having employees oversee collections, compounding “massive” labor shortages, according to Tom Perrick, director of state affairs for the American Distilled Spirits Alliance.
“This bill casually assumes that adequate staff is not only available for hire, but available for hire at a cost-effective rate that is borne solely by the business owner,” Perrick wrote in testimony submitted to the House committee.
Business backlash combined with questions over the process have stymied attempts to establish bottle deposit-refund programs in the past. McEntee’s bottle bill died in committee last year. Bennett’s 2022 bill to ban nips sales altogether also never made it out of committee.
McEntee wasn’t deterred.
“Anything worth having is a battle,” she told Rhode Island Current. “We also have more answers this year for how to implement this.”
Answers like reverse vending machines. This year’s version of McEntee’s bill allows retailers to use automated equipment to accept, process and issue deposits for empty containers. The latest proposal also exempts small-sized businesses – those with under 2,000 square feet of retail space – from having to take back empty bottles.
Hotels, restaurants and other venues that let customers drink bottled beverages onsite also don’t have to collect the empties.
Bennett’s bill doesn’t include any exemptions among liquor stores that would have to take back the nips, nor does his legislation mention reverse vending machines. But he was unmoved by the business’ protests.
“I can’t hear them justifying they’ll lose money, because it’s not their money,” he said.
No commitment from McKee
Gov. Dan McKee as part of his fiscal 2024 budget called for eliminating the “litter tax” charge on small businesses, since the approximately $815,000 in annual revenue from that charge doesn’t actually fund cleanup or environmental programs. Instead, McKee proposed putting $100,000 into a “Litter-Free Rhody” program to encourage community members to pick up trash.
But McKee remains noncommittal on the bottle bill proposal, despite a January letter from environmentalists urging him to back what they see as a broader, and better, solution to trash troubles. In an emailed statement Thursday, Olivia DaRocha, a spokesperson for the governor, said he will “review the bills when they reach his desk.”
Bennett also backed McEntee’s bill over his own, hoping to add bottle dimensions and the higher 25-cent deposit fee from his bill to the nip section of McEntee’s proposal. McEntee also said she was open to amending her bill based on Bennett’s proposal and to address retailers’ concerns.
A Senate companion bill by Sen. Bridget Valverde, an East Greenwich Democrat, has not been scheduled for committee hearing as of Friday. Bennett’s bill has no Senate companion, though Sen. Joshua Miller, a Providence Democrat, has proposed similar nip legislation to Bennett, but with a 50-cent refundable deposit program.
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