Bottle recycling bill canned, for now

Lawmakers will study deposit-refund program through special panel

By: - June 12, 2023 12:18 pm

Rhode Island and New Hampshire are the only New England states without a bottle bill requiring consumers to pay a deposit at the time they purchase a beverage in a container. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Rather than trashing a deposit-refund program for recyclable bottles and cans, lawmakers are creating a special panel to review and make recommendations on the contested proposal. 

The House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources is slated to vote Monday on amended legislation creating an 18-member joint legislative commission to study different options for bottle recycling, including a deposit program. The commission would serve as a substitute for Rep. Carol McEntee’s “bottle bill,” which would have established a refundable deposit program for recyclable beverage containers: plastic, glass and aluminum bottles and cans, including nips. Under the South Kingstown Democrat’s original proposal, customers would pay a 10-cent fee when they buy a six-pack or soda bottle at the store, getting the fee back when they return the empty bottle – either to a retailer that sells those products or an independent, privately-run redemption center.

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio in a joint statement emailed on Monday said lawmakers needed more detail before they felt ready to take up the “significant” legislation.

“We want to hear from states like Maine and Oregon, where there are robust programs, and learn from their models,” they said. “We need to gather input from the environmental community, producers, distributors, store owners, consumers, the Department of Environmental Management, Rhode Island Resource Recovery and many others.”

Legislative study commissions have gotten a reputation as the place where bills go to die, but proponents of the bottle bill say that is not the case this time.

“There’s holes in the bill that need to be plugged,” said Rep. David Bennett, a Warwick Democrat who for years has championed legislation aimed at reducing litter of miniature alcohol bottles. “Of course, I am not happy it didn’t pass. We need to get this trash off our streets and out of our waterways as soon as possible.”

But, Bennett acknowledged, “a study commission is going to tighten everything up and make it a stronger and better bill.”

Questions about refund locations

Among the questions the commission will seek to answer: where customers take their empties. Liquor and convenience store owners railed against the proposal to have customers bring back empty bottles, cans and nips to their stores, decrying the staffing and logistical burdens it would place on small businesses. 

Bottle bill pits environmental advocates against businesses

McEntee’s bill, which would exempt the smallest shops – those with under 2,000-square feet of retail space – from having to take back empty bottles also didn’t assuage their concerns. Instead, shop owners feared if customers couldn’t take back bottles to their stores, consumers would bring their business – returns and purchases – to competitors.

Some liquor store owners suggested putting the onus on the government through municipal recycling centers. But environmentalists countered that restricting recycling  options would make it too inconvenient for consumers, and therefore, ineffective.

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. Most end up in the landfill or as litter. Nips are a particular problem, as they are too small to be separated out by recycling equipment, according to landfill operators. 

Debate over deposit fee

Also in dispute is how much money customers should pay, and get back, for recycling bottles and cans. McEntee’s bill, and companion legislation in the Senate by Sen. Bridget Valverde, set the fee at 10 cents per bottle, can or nip. Bennett’s nips-only legislation included a 25-cent deposit and refund, while Sen. Josh Miller’s bill called for a 50-cent charge and refund in his version of the nips bill.

McEntee, Valverde, an East Greenwich Democrat, and Miller, a Providence Democrat, did not return calls for comment Monday. 

Jed Thorp, Rhode Island director for Clean Water Action, shared Bennett’s optimism that a study commission could help reconcile these points of contention.

“The legislative process doesn’t really lend itself to tackling complicated policy issues,” Thorp said. “Forcing everybody to the table to talk through things, I think it will be a positive.”

The legislative process doesn’t really lend itself to tackling complicated policy issues. Forcing everybody to the table to talk through things, I think it will be a positive.

– Jed Thorp, Rhode Island director for Clean Water Action

Thorp as head of Clean Water Action is among those who would serve on the 18-member commission, which would also include representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, Save the Bay and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. Business representation would include designees from five state associations for food, beverage and alcohol retailers and distributors.

Nicholas Fede, director of the Rhode Island Liquor Operators Collaborative, one of the groups with a seat on the panel, said he was looking forward to the opportunity.

“We’re really going to hear about the interests of all parties and come forth with some  sort of solution that’s both environmentally friendly and business friendly,” Fede said. 

The  legislation calls for the commission to report its findings and recommendations to the General Assembly by June 10, 2024.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.