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A Question Of Redemption: Voters To Decide Bottle Bill Expansion With Ballot Question 204:58
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(Jeff Barnard/AP)
(Jeff Barnard/AP)
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For years, conservation and community groups went to the State House asking to expand the bottle bill to include plastic bottles of non-carbonated beverages, which were not common when the bottle bill was first passed.

But Massachusetts legislators declined to bring the issue up for a vote. Now citizens will decide. Organizations such as the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG) helped put Question 2 on the November ballot to expand the bottle bill.

"So we’re going to look in a trash can at the corner here," said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, during a visit to the Boston Public Garden.

"Litter is one problem," she said. "Another problem is all the containers that get thrown in the trash. Because they end up in landfills and incinerators. And I see a couple of water bottles. There’s, I think, three water bottles and one soda bottle. And that’s roughly the ratio that we get. It’s roughly three to one when you do litter pickup. Three non-deposit containers for every one deposit container."

It’s why predominantly environmental groups such as Mass Audubon Society and the Merrimack River Watershed Council joined MASSPIRG in support of Question 2. Many cities and towns have voiced support, too. Domenitz says expanding the bottle bill would save communities money by keeping more plastic out of landfills.

Janet Domenitz of MASSPIRG shows water bottle litter she found in the Public Garden. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)
Janet Domenitz of MASSPIRG shows water bottle litter she found in the Public Garden. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

"Between bottled water, sports drinks," Domenitz said, "and you know, the Diet Snapple lemon-flavored peach iced tea, these things are now litter for the most part. Because they weren’t covered by the original law."

But opponents of Question 2 argue expanding the bottle bill is not the best way to expand recycling.

"When the initial deposit law was passed in 1982, curbside recycling didn’t exist," said Nicole Giambusso, spokeswoman for some businesses and other opponents of Question 2.

"So today we have recycling infrastructure and awareness that we didn’t have back then," Giambusso added. "We don’t need to go back to an early-1980s system that was essentially built for a different time."

Giambusso represents chains such as Market Basket and 7-Eleven, as well as soda bottlers, breweries and other business interests. It’s expensive, she said, for grocery stores to give up retail space to put in reverse vending machines. That’s the industry term for the machines where you put the bottles and cans in and get the money out.

"There are also materials covered under Question 2 that won’t fit in those machines like gallon jugs of water," Giambusso said. "So there will likely need to be staff diverted to accepting those gallon jugs of water. So that’s a cost."

Supporters call that argument a scare tactic. It’s up to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to decide which containers come under the law. Supporters say it’s highly unlikely gallon jugs would be part of the deposit system because they don’t fit reverse vending machines already in place.

Question 2 would affect existing deposits. It would allow the state to raise the amount with inflation. Five-cent deposits could become 6 cents. And the money from bottles and cans that don't get returned would get funneled into an environmental cleanup fund, instead of the state's general fund.

But it's the extension of the bottle bill to cover more plastic bottles that is focus of opponent TV spots. Giambusso says there’s a better way to encourage recycling.

"Making sure more people have curbside pickup," Giambusso said. "Making sure more people have single-stream recycling, where they can put everything in one container. Question 2 only makes recycling less convenient. It makes it more complicated, and it’s more expensive. It’s just not the right direction."

But Domenitz, with MASSPIRG, said the expansion of the nickel incentive under Question 2 is much more effective.

"We’re living in a real world here; we’re living with real data," Domenitz said. "And for the last 32 years, the deposit system has worked incredibly. It’s a common sense, time-tested law. And we are simply trying to bring it up to 2014."

Conservation and community groups put Question 2 on the Massachusetts ballot with the goal of decreasing litter from plastic bottles. (Flickr/Len Matthews)
Conservation and community groups put Question 2 on the Massachusetts ballot with the goal of decreasing litter from plastic bottles. (Flickr/Len Matthews)

This segment aired on October 15, 2014.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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