Even as Gov. Dannel Malloy proposes some election-year generosity by giving us a $55 rebate courtesy of a newly found budget surplus, others are trying mightily to figure out how to take more money out of our wallets.
To wit, a bill that seeks to expand the list of containers subject to a five-cent deposit has cleared the General Assembly’s Environment Committee. Unfortunately, like the ugly legislation that approved Keno, the bill more properly belonged in the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee because I suspect increased tax revenue is what this is mostly about.
Sen. Edward Meyer, the environment panel’s co-chair, and ConnPIRG, a progressive public-interest group, last week presented a petition signed by 4,000 people touting the benefits of expanding the list from beer, soda pop and water to include juices, teas and sports drinks. Indeed, ConnPIRG representative Sean Doyle made it clear that his group would like to see the law cover any type of single-serving beverage, and perhaps even bottles of wine and liquor as well. Oh, and so that the poor don’t feel left out, ConnPIRG also wants to add the deposit to “nips,” those tiny bottles of booze favored by lower-income drinkers.
Now on the one hand, it does make sense to be fair about how we make consumers pay deposits for certain containers. Why pick on Pepsi and Bud drinkers and exempt those who enjoy Poland Spring or Perrier? The legislature solved that inequity by adding water bottles in 2009.
And I’ve often wondered, if we must have this deposit as an incentive to recycle or to deter littering, why other containers are also exempt. In the spirit of fairness, why shouldn’t we add not only wine, but pickle jars and laundry soap jugs as well? How about cereal boxes? Reams of office paper? They’re recyclable and, like bottles and cans, they also often wind up on the side of the road.
The problem with adding more items to the current deposit list is that retailers who must accept the used containers simply don’t want any more than they have now. And they seem unimpressed with ConnPIRG’s idea to boost their handling fee to three and half cents per container. Stan Sorkin, president of the Connecticut Food Association, told Meyer supermarkets currently “lose 2-to-4 cents on every bottle we handle.”
And, Sorkin added, the expansion of the deposits would surely raise prices for consumers. Some of the these proposed new containers might not fit into those grungy self-service machines, which would force retailers to make “major labor investments.”
Walk into any supermarket returnables room and you will see the challenges retailers face. Rows of shoppers feed bottles into noisy machines that crunch the containers into smaller sizes. The machines, which Sorkin charitably says “are difficult to keep clean,” sometimes break down and they must be must be emptied several times a day. The air in the returnables room is a cross between stale beer and flat Mountain Dew. Who knows what kinds of critters lurk behind the machines — or in them?
And if the goal is to encourage recycling, then how much of an incentive is five cents? I’m far from wealthy but I couldn’t be bothered with lugging the cans and bottles back to the store, and feeding them for several minutes into those putrid machines just to reclaim a couple of dollars.
But since I want to do the right thing, I do take them on my weekly trip to the Salisbury-Sharon Transfer Station and dump them along with the rest of my recyclables into the single-stream dumpster.
I’ve been doing that for at least 20 years. How much money have I pissed away? Well, you’d have to ask the state. They’re the ones who keep the deposits on the unreturned bottles and cans. And how much does that amount to each year? I could not find those numbers for Connecticut. But Massachusetts, which has about twice our population and also grabs 100 percent of unclaimed deposits, collected $33.5 million in 2011. For the state of Connecticut’s take, do the math.
Perhaps the best course of action would be to adopt single-stream recycling statewide and repeal the bottle-deposit law entirely, as the Connecticut Food Association has suggested. But if we must expand the law, it would only be fair to give retailers all or part of the loot from the state’s unclaimed deposits to compensate them for the added costs. The state doesn’t want to do that. Instead, ConnPIRG and the lawmakers want to increase the retailers’ handling fees, which are paid by the distributors.
Why? As my mentor always told me, “It’s easy to spend other people’s money.”
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is a former high-school English teacher who was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.