THE BLOG
10/03/2014 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Big Beverage vs. The Environment: The Battlefield in Massachusetts

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It seems that it was just yesterday that people drank water from bubblers, and that buying a cold drink meant buying Coke, Pepsi, or 7-Up. But over the past 30 years, there has been a huge shift in what we're drinking -- and how much of it we're drinking, and even where we are drinking it.

Bottle bills work by charging the consumer a small deposit, usually a nickel, which is fully refunded when it's brought back to the store or a redemption center.

Nowhere is this change in consumer preference more obvious than in the 10 bottle bill states: Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Oregon, California, Maine, Michigan, Iowa, and Hawaii. Besides having bottle deposits, these states also have the highest container recycling rates by far, the lowest litter rates, and what's most amazing: The people there like paying a nickel knowing that they'll get it back when they return the bottle.

Some of those 10 states have updated their bottle bills to reflect changes in consumer tastes. Beverages like peach-kiwi iced tea weren't on the shelves 30 years ago, but now these non-carbonated juices, water, and sports drinks like Gatorade, dominate the shelves.

These changes unfortunately mean a fight over updating the 30-year-old bottle bill law in Massachusetts.

On one side are the environmental and public interest groups, like the Massachusetts Sierra Club, Mass Audubon, League of Women Voters of MA, and MASSPIRG; on the other side are the Big Bottlers and supermarket chains.

What's true is that the bottle bill is the most effective program ever devised to prevent litter and increase recycling, becoming a model for other states and countries around the world. Due to the bottle bill, Massachusetts redeems/recycles an amazing 80 percent of beverage containers. In sharp contrast, only 23 percent of juice and water bottles are recycled, because they're not covered by nickel deposits.

Environmentalists have more reasons for calling their bottle bill a success story. Bottle bills cut litter by 90 percent and the bills supply much-needed plastic, aluminum, and glass in a form that's so pure, it goes directly into remanufacturing. Most of the nation's recycled glass for bottles comes only from bottle bill states. People like the bottle bill because litter cleanup and disposal is expensive; Massachusetts' Department of Environmental Protection estimates that updating the nickel deposit to include new beverages would save taxpayers up to $7 million each year.

The bottlers' arguments range from the untrue to downright comical. Bottlers oppose the deposit system claiming that it puts an undue burden on seniors, who have to drag empties back to the store for their refunds. But the bottlers ignore the fact that the full bottles were 100 times heavier when customers carried them home. Although bottlers claim the bottle bill is a redundant and "parallel systems" for "blue-bin" curbside recycling, the truth is curbside is ineffective for on-the-go beverages, capturing only 23 percent of beverages -- while the bottle bill recovers 80 percent. Quite simply, a non-deposit bottle is far more likely to wind up as litter, and the bottlers know it.

Big Beverage companies know that three-quarters of these beverages are consumed away from home, out of the reach of curbside. They want the cities and towns to pick up the tab, pick up the litter, and basically let the bottlers do what they do best... make more profits.

During the economic downturn, the beverage industry was one of the few that increased sales and profits. Both Coke and Pepsi each had their first $30+ billion in profit years (not sales, but profits). The burden of helping increase recycling of their 150 billion beverages sold every year nationwide, or 3.5 billion in Massachusetts alone, was too much for them.

To their credit, the Sierra Club, MASSPIRG, and their coalition tried for 12 years to get the state legislature to pass an updated bottle bill. Every year brought a new excuse: Our neighboring states need to update theirs first (they did that), it's like a tax (a refundable deposit isn't a tax, just check the dictionary) or the economy is too weak (even though Massachusetts was one of the states least affected by the soft economy). The Massachusetts state senate passed the update repeatedly, but leadership just let the bill die, session after session. After 10 years, the coalition finally decided to put the measure to the voters and put the update on the 2014 ballot.

Of course, Big Beverage Companies weren't about to let that happen. They introduced legal challenges, and most recently simply decided to do what they do best -- squash their opposition with money. So far, they've thrown $8 million into he campaign, compared to the advocates' $600,000.

With the current mix of what's covered by the bottle bill, and what's not, 1.25+ billion bottles and cans are going to the dump every year in Massachusetts -- that's enough to fill Fenway Park.

The Massachusetts bottle bill is a model of producer responsibility: Those who create the waste are those who pay to clean it up. When we redeem a container, we get our nickel back. But when someone chooses to throw theirs in the trash (or out the car window), they forfeit their nickel. When the ballot initiative is passed, these nickels will help clean our parks, as well as fund the cleanup and disposal costs that are burdening our municipalities.

If the bottlers win, some say that they'll be back in two years to overturn the entire redemption system, and then onto the other nine states, overturning theirs, all in the name of protecting their billions of dollars in profits.

That's why we must take a stand now and update the Massachusetts Bottle Bill.

Helping pass the ballot initiative isn't just for Massachusetts residents. They need help with phone banking (from your home of office) as well as other actions. For more information, please visit www.yeson2ma.org

Phil Sego is the coordinator of the Massachusetts Sierra Club's Bottle Bill campaign. He can be contacted at 617-807-0311 or phil.sego@sierraclub.org