Making Sense of the Massachusetts Bottle Bill

MAking Sense of the MA Bottle Bill |


This November, Massachusetts voters are being asked whether or not they want to expand our current “Bottle Bill” to cover more types of bottles and cans.

You’d think that I would be all for the bottle bill.  In theory, I am.  More recycling, great!  But I had a lot of trouble with this one.   I have been thinking and talking to so many people about this.  A big issue was  separating facts from opinions and spin, on both sides of this issue.  I tried really hard to find independent data to verify various claims on both sides of the argument.  But I’ll admit, it was tough.  Below are my findings.  I tried to be objective, but some claims just didn’t make sense to me.  And I called them out.  But you decide.

Proposed Law

Let’s look at the actual wording of the original bill.  I refuse to believe any TV ad, articles or other paraphrases.

Please don’t crucify me if I oversimplified things here and there.  I’m trying to describe the law as accurately as possible without over complicating and confusing people. 

  • Expands the types of bottles/cans covered by the existing 5 cent deposit law. It will expand the current deposit system to cover other non carbonated non-alcoholic beverages in liquid form.  “excludes beverages that are primarily derived from dairy products, infant formula, united states food and drug administration-approved medicines,”.  Contains such things as water, juice, and tea.
  • The amount of this deposit (currently 5 cents) would be evaluated every 5 years and adjusted based on the consumer price index.
  • Increase the minimum handling fee that grocery stores and redemption centers are paid for returning the bottles/cans to the bottler/distributor. This is something I didn’t know about before.  Stores/redemption centers are paid by makers/distributors of the beverages for handling the returns.  Depending on who is accepting the returned bottle, the fee varies currently.  This law would make all handling fees 3.5 cents per bottle.  This is an increase from 2.25 cents for distributors.  It is an increase from 1 cent for bottlers.  So for example, Coke currently pays Stop ‘n Shop 1 cent per bottle to handle taking back a coke bottle/can.  This fee will increase to 3.5 cents.
  • The handling fee is assessed every 5 years by the secretary of the executive office of energy and environmental affairs and adjusted based on the consumer price index.
  • NEW: Establishes a Clean Environment Fund where abandoned deposits go. “Amounts deposited in said fund shall be used, subject to appropriation, for programs including but not limited to projects supporting the proper management of solid waste, water resource protection, parkland, urban forestry, air quality and climate protection.”  The way this is worded, the funds could be used for other purposes.
  • NEW: Small dealers can apply for an exemption so that they are not required to accept empty containers. 


The Claims

It really annoys me that in the official “Massachusetts Information For Voters 2014 Ballot Questions” brochure put out by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, the for and against sections are written by proponents and opponents of the ballot question. Of course, each group spins it for their own gain.  You won’t hear anything negative in the FORs nor positive in the AGAINST.  I just want the truth, without the spin, and let me decide.  I don’t mind a few – hey that means this will/could happen, but let me decide with ALL the facts not just the ones that support your argument.

Here is my attempt to “fact check” the claims made by each side.  I tried to remain objective here as much as possible, but in the end I, of course, ended up with an opinion about these “facts”.  I have shared those with you, but please I urge you to make up your own mind. Maybe you don’t agree with me.  That’s fine.


Before I get into their claims, who is FOR this bill:  environmental groups like MassPIRG, Sierra Club, various local Climate action networks; League of Women Voters; health organizations like Leukemia and Lymphoma society and HealthLink; Government officials like representatives, senators and mayors. 

How much have they spent to educate voters:  $750,000

  • The Bottle bill works – 80% of beer and soda containers are redeemed/recycled. Only 23% of non-deposit containers are recycled.  I had a hard time figuring out if this was true or not.  What I looked at was a 2010 waste characterization study.  What is a waste characterication study?  MassDEP personnel literally sift through and sort trash to see what’s in there.  According to this study,  0% deposit aluminum cans were found in the trash.  0.5% of the total trash was plastic beverage bottles.  This doesn’t exactly prove that the recycling rates stated are correct, but it does tell me the aluminum cans, the ones that have a deposit currently, are NOT ending up in the trash.  And the plastic bottles, ones without the deposit, are.

My Conclusion: TRUE

  • Save municipalities up to $7 million. I looked at the study that came to this conclusion.  The most significant savings was estimated to come from reduce collection costs due to reduced items to collect.  This is the cost of the trucks driving around collecting trash/recycling.  The trucks still have to drive every street, ever week.  I just can’t believe that little bit of extra room in a truck will reduce the number of trucks thus reducing the cost.  However, if people return water bottles and the like instead of throwing them in the trash or on the ground, that will save cities and towns on “tipping fees”.  The cost of trash is 2 fold – one cost for trucks picking up the trash and a second cost, per ton, to dispose of the trash (tipping fee). It will also save a bit of labor picking up the litter.

My CONCLUSION: TRUE, but overstated

  • Less litter.   Someone will pick up those bottles and return them for the deposit. So this is probably true.


  • Curbside recycling doesn’t help these situations because people drink these away from the home.  This doesn’t really fly with me. OK, maybe you are more likely to drink a bottle of water than a soda on a soccer field, or out for the day, but why aren’t there recycling bins out and about like there are all the trash cans these bottles are ending up in?  Or why aren’t people taking them home to recycle?  This point says to me, we need more public recycling bins, not necessarily an expanded bottle bill.


  • Restores the Clean Environment fund. This was in the original bill in 1981.  In 2003, Gov. Mitt Romney dissolved this and many other ear-marked items and sent them to the general fund. This is a fact.  What isn’t made completely clear is that only a portion of the unclaimed deposits go to the fund.  Not sure what that is.  And it seems like it’s still subject to appropriation.  So we have to watch this one and make sure funds don’t get taken away like they did in 2003.

MY CONCLUSION: TRUE, but must be watched

  • Increased Responsibility.  Like so many other items that are short lived, there is a cost associated with the waste generated from these bottles.  Cities/Towns and residents are bearing most of the cost in higher trash/recycling fees.  Some believe that the producer of such items, should share in the cost a bit.  Producers will have to pay the dealer/distributor a higher handling fee for bringing the bottle back to them.  Currently, bottlers (The Coco-cola’s ) are paying distributors and dealers (Market Baskets’) 1 cent per bottle returned to them.  This would increase to 3.5 cents and cover a lot more bottles.  Is it less expensive to toss your bottles into your recycling bin at home, probably.  But cheaper for who?  Is increasing bottle deposits the best way to increase responsibility?  Maybe not.




Who is Against this bill:  Beverage Distributors and Bottlers: Beer Distributors of MA, Berkshire Brewing Co., Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England; Liquor stores, Grocery Stores: Big Y, Market Basket; Waste Disposal Companies

How much have the spent to educate voters:  $8 million

  • 90% of households have access to curbside and community recycling.   The original statement was that 90% had access to curbside recycling.  The FOR side called this out as untrue, so the AGAINST side clarified by saying they meant curbside and community access (a drop off location).  I started out combing through MassDEP data to figure out what percentage of households actually did have access to recycling.  Then I stopped.   This is the way I view it.  If your city/town does not provide any sort of trash and recycling service to you, what do you do with it?  You have to do something with your waste, right?  Some will hire a company to come pick it up at the curb. Some will bring it to a transfer station or dump.  In MA, there is a thing called a waste banNo person can toss anything that is commonly recyclable into the trash.  No person can bring said material to a landfill or incinerator.  So, even if your town/city does not provide any trash/recycling services you are still responsible for it, correct?  And since no one can toss recyclables into the trash or transport them, it is your and your trash/recycling person’s responsibility to make sure these items are are recycled.  So maybe the opponents fudged the truth on the recycling stat a bit.  But I’d argue that 100% have access to and are responsible for recycling already.  

MY CONCLUSION: TRUE, but it doesn’t matter


  • Waste taxpayer dollars on expanding an uneconomical 30 year old system. There are no details here.  I’m not sure where this figure comes from.  I can’t figure out what taxpayer dollars would be going toward.  The administration of the law perhaps?  From what I can tell, the government doesn’t get too involved in the process except that stores are responsible for reporting how much money they collected in deposits and how much they paid out to the alcoholic beverage commission monthly. ???


  • Raise your nickel deposit and additional fees every five years – without your vote. Yes the 5 cent deposit can be raised every five years based on the Consumer Price Index.  This is a percentage based on how much prices on goods and services have changed over the five years.   Also remember, that the “additional fees” mentioned here, are fees the bottlers are paying, not you.  Sure, they will threaten to raise the prices and pass this on to the consumer.  Studies have been done to show that the price of  a beverage in bottle bill vs non bottle bill states is the same.


  • The Recycling Rate will only increase less than 1%.   To evaluate this, you need to look closely and know a few recycling definitions.  When someone refers to the “recycling rate”, they are referring to the overall rate at which all material being discarded is recycled.  For example, if I discard 10 lbs worth of stuff and 7 lbs goes into my trash barrel and the other 3 lbs go into my recycle bin, I have a recycling rate of 30% (3/10 lbs).  According to my look at the waste characterization study, plastic bottles made up 0.5% of the waste.  So, as long as you are clear on what this means.  It’s probably pretty close.  Just be sure you realize that it is not disputing the 80% recycle rate claimed by proponents. 

MY CONCLUSION: TRUE, but make sure you understand what is being said

  •  More than $30 million of unclaimed nickels go to the state’s general fund not to environmental programs.  Under the current law, this is true.  The ballot question aims to change that.  As I said above, though, this will need to be watched.  However, the way this claim is worded, it makes people think that the money is still going to be going directly to the general fund, which, strictly speaking, it’s not.  A NO vote will continue to send the money to the general fund with no hopes of funding environmental issues.




Ever wonder what happens to the bottles/cans you return?  They are sold by the bottlers to scrap metal/plastic/glass dealers to be recycled.  Yes, SOLD, as in the bottlers are making money from the materials just like your curbside recycler does.  Actually they are making more than many of the curbside recyclers.  Since these bottles/cans are separated when they are returned, they are of a higher quality than single-stream recycables.  They command a higher price.  How much?  I don’t know.  But they are recouping some of the money they are spending on handling fees, maybe more.  

Why are the bottlers, distributors, and grocery stores lobbying so hard to get you to vote no?  In addition to the $8 million they’ve spent on this, they have spent who knows how much more money over the years to keep this bill from getting on the ballot or being passed by the legislature. Ask yourself why?  

Curbside recyclers are against this bill because it will take revenue out of their stream – less plastic bottles for them to sell.  So apparently there are enough of these bottles ending up in recycling bins to affect the recyclers.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  I see so many plastic bottles in the trash that I can’t imagine that the 20% or so that are recycled make that big of an impact.  But maybe 20% of a HUGE number is still a huge number and recyclers would rather see money being spent on encouraging people to recycle the 80% into their revenue stream.

The opposition urges us “Let’s stop throwing money at an inefficient system and invest in modern recycling technology”.  Sounds great!  Sign me up! Are they offering up the money to do this?  I agree that maybe the bottle bill system is redundant, but it works. Normal recycling without incentives (or penalties perhaps) just doesn’t get the job done as well. 

Yes it is a pain in the neck to lug these bottles back to the store/redemption center rather than throw them in your recycling bin.  But think about this, most of these items are not good for your health or are a waste of money.  Stop buying them and avoid the returns and cost all together.  If you feel you must buy bottled water, buy the larger sizes and fill your own bottle.  They are less expensive, no deposits and can still be recycled.

 Yes recycling is available to most residents now where it wasn’t when the bill was first introduced.  However, in all those 25+ years, people still aren’t taking advantage of this recycling- for one reason or another.  Unfortunately, it seems as though unless you hit people in their wallets, they don’t pay attention.  I don’t like that, but I see it more and more as reality.  Ask your friends who live in communities where they pay for bags/barrels of trash (Pay as You Throw, PAYT, systems).  Have they taken the time and  figured out how to reduce their trash to save some money?


Ultimately, I just wish everyone would be more reasonable and realistic.  Instead of fighting about this, can’t we all agree that 1) bottles create litter 2) they aren’t being recycled at a high rate  and 3) let’s ALL do something about it.  Heck, take an ever broader view and look at all waste.  Design the ideal system – easy, efficient, cost effective – and EVERYONE do their part.  Producers, consumers, stores, recyclers, government, EVERYONE!


But for now, I still need to decide how I will vote on Question 2…….



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