By Rob Roper
Governor Phil Scott vetoed H.158, An act relating to the beverage container redemption system, or “the bottle bill.” His reasoning was sound, citing the cost and complexity of the proposal, which aimed to substantially expand the number of beverage containers subject to the 5 and 15 cent deposit requirements.
Currently only carbonated drinks such as soda and beer are subject to the 5-cent deposit, and liquor bottles require a 15-cent deposit. H.158 would expand the 5-cent deposit to just about every beverage container out there – water bottles, sports drinks, fruit juices, etc. Wine bottles and other “vinious” beverages would be added to the 15-cent list. Pretty much everything but dairy based beverages and non-alcoholic cider would require a deposit because plastic, glass, or metal containers when used for these products are substantially and chemically different than those exact same products when used for, say, water or orange juice. (Ha ha! Gotcha! No, that’s not really the reason.)
Scott noted in his weekly press conference hours before he issued his official veto that the current redemption process is a “Rube Goldberg” contraption that actually puts barriers in the way of recycling by forcing consumers to go out of their way redeem their bottle deposits and requiring separate recycling/redemption facilities for beverage containers as opposed to everything else. “What about those areas that don’t have redemption centers? What about the folks… living in a single-family dwelling, or living in a one-bedroom apartment facility somewhere and the redemption center is two miles away?” asked Scott. “What are you supposed to do with all the bottles? The magnitude of the expansion is dramatic.”
Dramatic indeed. In fact, the bill would mandate a new bureaucracy and infrastructure be created around processing these containers called the “producer responsibility organization.” (Hopefully if this bill does ultimately become law this entity will have the option of re-naming itself something cooler.) In his official veto letter, Scott pointed out that, “increased handling fees will be passed onto consumers to fund the redemption system; and increased recycling costs for towns, businesses and residents as high-value cans and bottles are removed [from the existing recycling stream, where they are currently sold to offset the cost of the system].”
Scott was actually making the argument, though he didn’t go so far to specifically say so, that we should repeal the existing bottle bill because it is expensive and redundant. In 2012, Vermont passed a universal, mandated recycling law. We have to, by law, recycle all these containers anyway, and we now have a “zero sort” recycling system in which all recyclable products go into one convenient blue bin. So, why don’t we just use this single, more efficient, less costly system for all of our recyclable waste, including all beverage containers? Seems like a no brainer, and it is. Or would be, if….
It is interesting that Scott used the term “Rube Goldberg” to describe the Bottle Bill – the same term used to describe the Clean Heat Standard – a “Rube Goldberg” carbon tax. And that’s what the bottle deposit/redemption system really has become – a stealth tax levied on consumers that politicians feel like they can get away with without being pegged by the voters with raising a tax.
You see, as it turns out a lot of people don’t bother to redeem those 5 and 15 cent deposits (roughly 25%). What happens to all those nickels when they don’t? The state government pockets the cash – just like a tax. And it’s a good chunk of change.
According to the Joint Fiscal Office, under H.158’s container expansion the state would collect over $2 million more a year in un-redeemed deposit revenue on top of the $2.5 to $3.5 million it already takes in annually. This is a tax. An expensive, complicated, bureaucracy intensive way to separate Vermonters from yet another few more millions of our hard-earned dollars.
And, as these things always do, it gets worse. H.158 requires the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) to submit an annual report that, “shall include a recommendation of whether the beverage container deposit for any of the three beverage categories should be increased to improve redemption of that category of beverage container.” [Emphasis added.]
It’s important to remember that last legislative session’s version of this bill, which ultimately didn’t pass only because the calendar ran out, originally called for an increase in the deposit amount to 10 cents in addition to expanding the number of containers subject to the law. This is what supporters of the bottle bill really want. Doubling the deposit amount will, of course, double the revenue from unredeemed containers. Why settle for $5 or $6 million when you can squeeze the citizenry for $10 or $12 million? That’s greedy government 101!
As mentioned earlier, roughly 25 percent of all container deposits go unredeemed each year. That’s a steady number at the 5-cent rate. H.158 says its goal is to increase the redemption rates to 80 percent by 2030, 85 percent by 2035, and 90 percent by 2040. Realistically, the only way to do that is to increase the deposit amount to the point where it’s actually worth it to drive across town – perhaps tens of miles – to wait in a line at bee-infested dump so some dude can count out how many beer and wine bottles you emptied over the weekend. We promise, no judgement!
Ergo, the only thing ANR can realistically recommend in their reports is a need to increase the deposit amount. Therefore, an inevitable increase in the deposit price – aka beverage container tax increase — has been subtly baked into this so called bottle bill, and the sneaky politicians will blame that increase on the recommendation from the Agency of Natural Resources – which they, the politicians, ordered the agency to make! It’s so hard not to despise the people.
So, let’s all raise a glass of wine poured from a currently no-deposit-necessary bottle in hopes that this this veto holds up. And that the voters wise up and fire all these greedy, money-grabbing politicians before they get the chance to strike again.
Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics, robertroper.substack.com