MONTPELIER — Lawmakers who backed the expansion of Vermont’s bottle deposit law during a daylong battle on the Senate floor last week bemoaned the beverage industry’s power in the Statehouse, underscoring the fact that a broad piece of legislation about Vermont’s trash is about more than trash.
It’s also a fight for money.
After a convoluted political process in the Senate that created some strange bedfellows, the Senate — in a 22-7 vote — struck down an attempt to make plastic water, juice and sports drink bottles redeemable for 5 cents the way beer and soda containers are.
Instead, they voted to create a committee to study the concept, and a lawmaker who supported the change conceded studies are “fall-back positions” and “consolation prizes.”
Environmental lobbyists supported expanding the bottle bill to include a range of other containers because they argue it’s among the best ways to expand the amount of materials that are recycled and limit the amount of trash going to landfills.
But lobbyists representing companies like Coca-Cola opposed it because those companies have to pay handling fees to facilitate the redemption of bottles, fees that total millions of dollars for the existing bottle law and would grow were it expanded.
Several lawmakers who supported expanding the bottle deposit law said it was unfortunate to see the beverage industry’s clout take hold in the Statehouse and undermine what they view as a common sense approach to increasing recycling, reducing the amount of waste going to landfills, and preventing litter.
Sen. Joe Benning, a Caledonia County Republican, is the lawmaker who proposed the bottle bill expansion as a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Over a week ago the committee voted to add the bottle deposit law expansion to a bill that seeks to create a new statewide solid waste management plan and attempts to increase recycling and composting through a series of mandates.
The committee officially backed down from its support of the bottle law Friday, as Sen. Dick McCormack, a Democratic member of the committee, agreed to the study instead of supporting the bottle law expansion as he had the week before.
When Benning made the bottle bill proposal, he said, he was “immediately besieged by any lobbyist in the building that has anything to do with the bottling industry.”
Benning added that on the issue of the bottle deposit law, the Senate was “being held hostage by corporate interests” instead of taking the approach most Vermonters would agree with.
“I’ve heard a lot in this chamber about how corporate money in elections is such a horrible thing and I wonder ... if in fact we understand when it’s happening to us directly,” said Benning.
Others piled on with the corporate influence theme. Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Windham County Democrat, began talking about a list of campaign contributions from the 2010 election before Sen. Jeannette White objected and asked what corporate contributions have to do with the debate over the bottle law.
Galbraith backed down, saying he had made his point.
Galbraith’s list showed contributions compiled by the group Common Cause of Vermont. It includes thousands of dollars in contributions to both Democratic and Republican candidates, parties and political action committees from Anheuser-Busch, Casella Waste Systems, and the Vermont Wholesale Beverage Association.
Sen. Mark MacDonald, a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee — and maybe the fiercest supporter of expanding the bottle law — argued the way the Legislature has reached solutions to problems has changed in the last 20 years.
“This is not the only area of our commerce, the only area of our lives where solutions are found and deliberated less and less often by citizens trying to use common-sense solutions, and we find we’re being persuaded by folks who have to use us to make their profits bigger,” said MacDonald.
Advocates for the underlying solid waste bill say they are trying to go beyond just the bottle bill, which some argue is outdated, and take a more comprehensive approach to cutting down on the amount of waste going to landfills.
The bill’s main mechanism for increasing recycling and composting is a series of mandates imposed on solid waste collection sites across the state, trash haulers and many businesses and other groups that produce food waste.
By July 2014, for instance, solid waste facilities must collect certain recyclables like paper, cardboard, plastic jugs and aluminum pie plates separately from trash and deliver them to a recycling facility.
In addition, by July 2016, solid waste facilities must collect food waste separately from trash and deliver it to a facility that can use it for things like compost.
Under the system envisioned in the bill, proponents said, the bottle deposit law could be bad because it would divert valuable plastic containers from the stream of recyclables that solid waste organizations and businesses manage. That material helps give solid waste groups the financial ability to also recycle other materials that are less valuable, proponents of the solid waste bill have said.
The Chittenden Solid Waste District, for instance, estimates it would lose $400,000 in annual revenue if the bottle bill were expanded and has opposed the expansion in the Statehouse this year, according to Jen Holliday, the compliance and product stewardship manager for the district.
Many lawmakers said they wanted a study of the bottle bill — along with a ban on plastic shopping bags that was also initially thrown into the bill — because they didn’t have enough information.
“We didn’t take testimony on the bag ban, and we didn’t take full testimony on the negative side of the bottle bill,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, the chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
By not expanding the bottle bill and instead studying it — but at the same time passing the broader solid waste provisions — lawmakers were giving a head start to a new “single stream” recycling system, imperiling future efforts to expand the bottle deposit law, said MacDonald.
As lawmakers struggled to decide how to vote, McCormack laid out the two sides of the argument.
“The allegations I’ve heard from another member of the committee is if we don’t expand the bottle bill now there will be so much fiscal investment in single-stream facilities that we will not be able to expand the bottle bill, because without the plastics, single stream is not financially viable,” said McCormack.
On the other hand, said McCormack, “the Senate committee did receive testimony from the opposite side that if we do expand the bottle bill, that will prejudice the situation against recycling facilities.”
That left Sen. Ann Cummings and other senators torn and ultimately voting for a study so they could make a more informed decision.
“I’m feeling between a rock and hard place and about to have migraine and leave building,” said Cummings, a Washington County Democrat.
The beverage industry would like to see the bottle bill repealed, said Andrew MacLean, a lobbyist with the firm MacLean, Meehan & Rice, which represents the Beverage Association of Vermont. The association includes the local distributors for Coke and Pepsi.
“Yes, we would,” said MacLean, “but in order to get there there has to be something better that replaces it.”
The solid waste system getting started with this year’s legislation could be that system, MacLean said, and he has supported the solid waste bill this year.
“The bottle bill is old thinking on a new problem and a new dynamic,” said MacLean.
Gov. Peter Shumlin opposes expanding the bottle bill, and earlier this year also called the law outdated.
Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said in a written statement that the Senate’s vote to study the bottle instead of expand it “marks a sad and hopefully temporary departure from the strong environmental ethic typically demonstrated by the Senate.”
He noted the vote came around the same time Vermonters are celebrating Earth Day, which is today.
“On this Earth Day 2012,” Burns said, “the Senate struck out on a soft ball.”
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