When a government program is broken, most good people in government want to fix it. But what if fixing the program means that the same perennially cash-strapped government will lose money?
That’s the question lawmakers will have to ask themselves as they consider what to do about Connecticut’s bottle deposit law, which we now know is on the verge of collapse, thanks to a terrific report this week by WNPR’s Patrick Skahill.
Connecticut’s bottle bill — wrongly labeled, I think, because it’s no longer proposed legislation and is an actual law — has been around since 1978, when members of the General Assembly were appalled at the state’s litter problem and wanted to do something positive for the environment.
After all, as the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection says, states that have bottle deposit laws have higher rates of overall recycling than those without bottle laws. And it stands to reason that they have less litter involving soda-pop, water, and beer containers. But the deposit has remained at 5 cents since the legislation took effect on Jan. 1, 1980.
Do you take your redeemables back to the store or to a redemption center to claim your deposit? I did 20, 25 years ago. But a nickel was worth more back then and I had less disposable income. Now it’s 2017 and I can’t remember the last time I claimed a deposit. And no, it’s not just because 5 cents isn’t worth worrying about. Consider what you have to endure to return the returnables.
Rows of shoppers feed bottles into noisy machines that crunch the containers into smaller sizes. The machines sometimes break down and they must be must be emptied several times a day. In either case, customers often have to wait until the problem is taken care of. 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?
That’s not to say I throw the beer bottles and soda cans away. I take them to my town transfer station, where they go into the single-stream recycling Dumpster along with cardboard, office paper, and the like. Sometimes there is a old man there picking the returnables out for redemption. So I lose a few dollars but the material is still recycled — occasionally it’s even returned — and I don’t have to suffer the indignity of standing in line in a nauseous place.
The economics don’t make sense for the businesses, either. The retailer pays the deposit up front when s/he buys from the distributor. The store or redemption center gives a nickel back to the consumer for every bottle or can returned. The distributor or manufacturer then reimburses the retailer for the deposit and adds a handling fee of anywhere between one-and-a-half cents and two cents per bottle or can, depending on the type of beverage that formerly filled the container.
Nearby states such and New York, Vermont, and Maine have handling fees between two and three times ours. Connecticut retailers and redemption centers say the handling fee might have been reasonable almost 30 years ago when the law was conceived.
Meanwhile, costs have risen for everything from utilities, to rent and insurance. Oh, and there is that little matter of the minimum wage, which rose to $10.10 per hour on new year’s day. Now there is pressure from Democratic lawmakers to increase it to $15 by 2022 — pressure Gov. Malloy seems to be resisting.
The big question, of course, is what happens to that nickel in the case of folks like yours truly — people who simply throw the bottles and cans into the garbage or lump them in with the curbside recycling without compunction or regret.
Well, until 2009 distributors and wholesalers got to keep the nickel to help them offset the costs of complying with the bottle law. Then the legislature decided the money was too great to resist and the law was changed so that unclaimed deposits went straight back to the state’s general fund.
So, how much money are we talking about here? For fiscal year 2016, the Department of Revenue Services reported $33 million in unclaimed deposits. In addition, quarterly redemption rates are trending down to 49 percent in the most recent four-quarter average. In other words, the lower the redemption rates, the more money the state makes. How perverse. Surely, that can’t be why the law was enacted in the first place.
Enter state Reps. Mary Mushinsky and Joe Gresko, who have proposed legislation to give at least some of the millions in unclaimed deposits back to the distributors.
This will be an interesting dance for lawmakers in Hartford. They absolutely hate to part with revenue — especially with a projected $1.4 billion deficit staring them in the face for the coming year. But if the private bottle and can redemption system collapses, what would happen? Would we abandon the program? Would the state simply take over the returnables business and set up its own redemption centers akin to those old auto emissions testing stations of yore? Would we establish a Connecticut Recycling and Redemption Authority?
That would surely be more expensive than sharing revenues with the distributors. Expect Mushinsky’s and Gresko’s bill to pass in some form. The state isn’t any good at running things like a business. Anyone remember the other CRRA?
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