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State Disputes Recycling Estimate In Anti-Bottle Bill Ad

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Under fire from environmentalists for alleged inaccuracies in a television ad, an industry-backed group mobilized to defeat a bottle bill referendum has added a citation attributing an estimate to a state agency, which is also disputing the figure used.

No On Question 2: Stop Forced Deposits is trying to defeat a ballot question that if passed would expand the bottle deposit law to include water bottles, tea and sports drinks, but not milk or liquor.

After the group launched a television ad this week claiming 90 percent of Massachusetts residents have curbside recycling programs, arguing the bottle-deposit is unnecessary to boost recycling, the environmental groups seeking passage of Question 2 protested, arguing that figure was incorrect.

In response to inquiries from the television stations running the ads, the political group opposing the bottle bill added a citation to the ad, claiming the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs as its source for the figure, according to No On 2 spokeswoman Nicole Giambusso.

"I like to have the right data out there in these kinds of discussions and that doesn't seem to be the right data," Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner David Cash told the News Service Thursday afternoon.

While Gov. Deval Patrick has long supported an expansion of the bottle bill, Cash said, "Our agency does not take a stand on this ballot initiative. We want to get out the factual data that people can use to help make a decision."

The executive office referred questions about the curbside recycling rate to the DEP, and DEP spokesman Ed Coletta told the News Service the department estimates 64 percent of residents have access to curb-side recycling.

Coletta said the 90-percent figure "doesn't match the information that I have," and said he "can't comment" on the political group using the administration as a citation. Cash said there is no action the DEP can take about that citation.

No On 2, which is funded by supermarkets and beverage companies, argues that the use of 5-cent deposits to encourage recycling and cut down on litter is outdated as other recycling programs have grown, which don't require people to bring dirty bottles back to stores.

In a television ad launched this week that Giambusso said is running statewide, former Marlborough Recycling Committee Chairwoman Peggy Schwarz Ayres makes the pitch that bottle deposits - which are currently only applied to beer and carbonated beverages - are not needed.

"With curbside recycling it's an idea whose time has come and passed. Ninety percent of Massachusetts residents have curbside recycling right in their communities," Ayres says in the ad. "There's no take-back. There's no sorting. There's no making sure you get to the right store. It's all right there at your home."

While maintaining that the ad is "well substantiated," Giambusso said the group arrived at the 90 percent figure by including both people who have curbside recycling as well as drop-off recycling, where recyclables can be brought to a local recycling facility.

"This is a testimonial ad from a local environmentalist, and it conveys the point we've been making all along: that recycling is widely accessible to Massachusetts residents today," Giambusso said in an email. "We've been clear in our materials, including our first ad, that we're referring to curbside and community recycling programs. We provided substantiation to TV stations per their request, and took the additional step of adding a citation to make this even clearer."

Giambusso referred the News Service to data put out by Energy and Environmental Affairs, which shows that of the cities and towns responding to a 2012 state survey, about 79 percent had either curbside recycling, drop-off recycling or both. Coletta said using data from all of the municipalities in the state, 76.5 percent of the Massachusetts population has access to curbside or drop-off recycling. A research consultant to the opponents of the measure said one of the "assumptions" in its analysis was that everyone in a community with drop-off recycling could access that program, but municipalities only report the number of people that buy stickers or use the drop-off recycling facility.

On Wednesday bottle bill supporters wrote to Attorney General Martha Coakley and Secretary of State William Galvin, citing a state law prohibiting the distribution of false information intended to influence voters on a ballot question, and seeking actions from the elected officials.

"These are not everyday stretches of the truth," read the letter from Janet Domenitz, of MASSPIRG, and Phil Sego, of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. Noting letters had been sent to television stations, the two called the statements "gross errors of fact."

In a statement to the News Service, Domenitz called the latest move by the No campaign a "new low."

"Sadly, for the voters, it seems the anti-clean environment folks are still trying to mislead even as they try to cover their tracks. The facts are, No on 2 is a front for big bottlers and beverage companies," Domenitz said, claiming the beverage companies "don't care about recycling or bottled water litter, they care about their own deep pockets."

On Thursday, the No campaign announced economic findings that the referendum would result in a "nearly" $100 million cost to Bay State residents had been endorsed by Tufts University Economics Professor Jeffrey Zabel, who said the proposal would likely only increase recycling by 1 percent.

The study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants estimated the cost of operating the expanded program would be $68 million and estimated the state would collect an additional $27 million in unclaimed deposits.

The move to expand the bottle bill has been perennially filed by Gov. Deval Patrick and others and has cleared the Senate on voice votes, but has been blocked in the House by Speaker Robert DeLeo, who has said increasing the beverages in the program would constitute a tax. Supporters said they had the votes for it to pass the House if it ever reached the floor.

Alice Wolf, a former state representative from Cambridge, told the News Service Thursday that curbside recycling programs rarely collect the water bottles and other drinks people consume away from home.

"People don't take them home and put them in the blue bins even if they have blue bins," said Wolf, who was in the State House Thursday.

Cash said the state has encouraged cities and towns to adopt recycling programs, providing grants and technical assistance, while arguing that curbside recycling is limited in addressing litter. Cash said analysis has shown bottles that aren't available for deposit are three times more prevalent than deposit bottles in litter, though they only account for 40 percent of what is sold.

As of the latest campaign finance filings, the group seeking to defeat the ballot proposal had taken in $7.8 million and spent $5.3 million to advance its message, while the Sierra Club Bottle Bill Committee and the Coalition for an Updated Bottle Bill arrayed in support of the measure had taken in a total of about $525,000 dating back to 2013, and spent a total of about $359,000.

The proposed law, which votes will approve or reject on Nov. 4, would also require the state to adjust the amount of the deposit every five years, and would increase the minimum handling fee distributors pay dealers for handling the empties. Small dealers would be exempt from accepting empties under new regulations that would be established under the proposal. If the referendum passes, un-redeemed deposits collected under the program would fund environmental projects and milk and liquor bottles would be exempt from the expansion.

A late September Suffolk University poll found the bottle bill expansion question losing among likely voters 34-58 percent, while a SocialSphere poll of likely voters in early August for the Boston Globe found the question winning 62-27.

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