I could support the bottle bill if…

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Last year saw a lot of movement within the legislature on the bottle bill, but ultimately no action. The bottle bill seeks to expand the types of beverage containers that require a 5-cent deposit to include water and juice bottles.

In theory it sounds really good. Create an incentive for individuals and businesses to redeem their deposit and therefore keep plastic bottles from getting thrown into the regular trash stream and from being strewn all over the streets and highways.

Here are my problems with it:

(1) At the most personal level: When I recently brought regular water bottles (the cheap kind!) to a local Whole Foods, there was more than a frown about my bringing non-Whole Foods Lemon Italian Sparkling Water or the German sparkling water (that I really love…). To be more serious, expanding the bottle bill is a burden for local markets and especially smaller markets who have to handle all this traffic. There may be some benefits to them in the form of increased traffic to the store but it is minimal. Even larger stores make you feel pretty darn uncomfortable redeeming water bottles if they were not purchased at the location.

(2) At the level of thinking through the problem: The data suggest that this is far less of a problem than it once was simply through educational programs (and changing attitudes) and new and more enlightened municipal trash collection efforts. The bottle bill wouldn’t change a whole heck of a lot (though neither would it prevent these continued other changes that have larger impacts).

(3) At the level of honesty/transparency: The bottle bill is a tax and acts as a revenue “increaser” for the state in the guise of a simple incentive. More specifically, it is an attempt by environmental organizations to increase the revenues of the state’s environmental offices. Bottle bill funds have historically flowed principally to the Department of Environmental Protection. The problem with the bottle bill (the revenues of which are supposed to enhance recycling education, etc., it that they have in fact been expended on all kinds of stuff within DEP and within the Environmental/Energy Executive Office. They have been used to pay for the salaries of EO staff or staff in unrelated priority areas for the Secretary and Commissioner, because, well, that’s something they could do. All that money is fungible and all the wonderful talk about how the programs will enhance educational programs is, at best, only partially true. Revenue is revenue.

So, here’s the deal. If you want to screw up my shopping experience and piss off Whole Foods employees and folks working at small retail shops, that’s perhaps an acceptable price for the small environmental gains of the expanded bottle bill. I get the idea of creating incentives for people to redeem their recyclables. But then be honest and give up looking for a revenue stream controlled by the EO of Enviro/Energy Affairs and DEP. Provide a real-world estimate of the funds that would be generated through the expanded bottle bill and reduce other taxes in a commensurate amount. Perhaps it could be used as a way to lower the sales tax increase which has been another burden on retailers around the state.