It’s time to update the Bottle Bill

Every year across Massachusetts, more than 30,000 tons of non-carbonated beverage bottles are buried in landfills, burned in waste-to-energy plants, or tossed onto our streets, parks and beaches. That’s enough plastic bottles to fill Fenway Park – from the press box to the Green Monster – five times.

For nearly three decades, the Massachusetts Bottle Deposit Law has accomplished its intended purpose: providing the financial incentive for consumers to recycle beer and soda containers. Thanks to this law, 80 percent are recycled – more than twice the recycling rate for non-deposit containers.

It’s time for Massachusetts to update our laws to include bottled water, sports drinks, teas and other non-carbonated beverages. In addition to increasing recycling and reducing litter, this would create jobs in our “green” business sector and save communities millions of dollars annually.

In Massachusetts, 40 percent of the beverages sold come in containers not subject to nickel deposits, and these same containers account for 83 percent of the bottles and cans we throw away. Most of these non-deposit container beverages are consumed away from home – which means they usually don’t end up in curbside recycling bins, but instead are disposed of in overflowing trash cans at beaches, parks, concerts and sporting events, or – worse – are tossed on the ground.

When the deposit law was implemented in 1983, carbonated beverages dominated the market and a redeemable nickel deposit was placed on each bottle and can of beer and soda sold to encourage people to recycle instead of littering. Times change: today, non-carbonated drinks are the fastest-growing segment of the market. These products now make up more than half of all non-alcoholic beverages sold. More often than not, they are either produced by the same bottlers or trucked by the same distributors, and stocked by the same stores that sell soda and beer. Whether you’re a bottler, consumer or small business owner, there are compelling reasons to back this change.

• Communities statewide would save an estimated $7 million annually on trash collection and disposal costs.

• The Massachusetts recycling industry employs 14,000 people. The change would provide more work for more people and help small local businesses, including the 140 redemption centers across the state.

• There are four times as many non-carbonated beverage containers in litter than beverage containers with deposits. Deposits motivate consumers to recycle.

• Massachusetts community and non-profit groups that raise funds by redeeming bottles and cans could see their proceeds increase by 40 percent.

• More than 75 percent of residents and nearly 200 communities favor updating the deposit law to include non-carbonated beverage containers, according to a MassINC survey.

Some opponents claim this change would raise prices, limit consumer choice, or impose a burden on retailers. A Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection survey looked at beverage prices and availability at supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers in several Northeast states with a range of laws on their books – from New Hampshire, which has no bottle bill, to Maine, which has a law that covers containers of both carbonated and non-carbonated beverages. Information gathered by the agency indicates that expansion of the bottle deposit law in Massachusetts would neither increase overall product costs nor limit consumer choice of beverages.

Analysis of the survey data also shows that expanding the law has no discernible effect on retail prices, beyond the redeemable 5-cent deposit. There is no evidence of significant cost increases as a result of bottle law updates in Maine and Connecticut. In those states, updating the law simply meant higher utilization of existing bottle-return machines. Our survey suggests reverse vending machines already in use at stores across Massachusetts have the capacity to accept more containers without placing a burden on retailers or the public.

At a time when we face many larger and more pressing environmental and economic challenges, we are spending too much time debating an idea that simply makes sense. Let’s make a choice that will result in more jobs, less litter and greener communities for generations to come.

Kenneth L. Kimmell is the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection