Will bottle bill make it to finish line?

Published: May. 18, 2023 at 4:58 PM EDT
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BARRE, Vt. (WCAX) - Can an overhaul of Vermont’s bottle bill make it over the finish line? Vermont lawmakers are one step away from sending an expansion of the state’s redemption system to the governor’s desk. Reporter Calvin Cutler explains what the law would mean for consumers and businesses.

The current redemption system in Vermont works like this: Manufacturers and distributors charge stores and redemption centers a nickel per container and may charge a four-cent handling fee. Retailers then charge customers that nickel and may pass the handling fee, with the expectation they will return the bottle to recoup their nickel. When consumers go to return their empties, they get the money back. The redemption center then returns the bottle to the distributor to get their five cents back. at this point, everyone is even -- if the handling fee was passed onto the consumer.

So what would more containers being in the mix mean for you? On a slow Tuesday at the Barre Beverage Baron -- a state redemption center -- Trent Julian is dropping off three months of cans and bottles. “Usually, I get up to nine dollars when I go in,” Julian said.

Skilled workers manually sort the soda, beer, and liquor containers into over 100 bins. Those bags are stored upstairs and are picked up by a hauling company three times a week.

The bill nearing the finish line in the Legislature would expand the state’s bottle bill to include wine bottles, juice, sports drinks, and more. It also increases what redemption centers are paid.

Right now, redemption centers are hard to find. “There’s not one in Montpelier and I don’t know of any if you go down 302 from here to New Hampshire. I don’t think there is one. That’s because if it’s not profitable, people aren’t going to do it,” said Casey Harrington, the Beverage Baron’s owner.

Retailers can opt out of accepting cans if their building is smaller than 5,000 square feet -- about the size of two tennis courts -- and stores would be able to use reverse vending machines so people can return cans where they bought them. The bill calls for the creation of at least three redemption centers per county, or one per every town with over 7,000 population.

“I think we have a lot of questions that need answers before we can say let’s move forward,” said Erin Sigrist with the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association. Questions like how the redemption centers will be created, how they will be paid, and how they will be staffed.

“We could hire two more right now if we could find them. We would need to add on at least five more,” Harrington said.

Many of those questions will be hammered out in a study ahead of the start date of the proposed 2027 start date. But there are also questions about the impact on consumers -- both in the cost of beverages and the time spent returning them for refunds. More containers could mean more trips to the redemption center and more time waiting.

Julian says he’s a-okay with that “I think it’s worth it. It adds to people coming in, recycling, and knowing that the bottles are going to a good use,” he said.

Lawmakers will be back at the Statehouse in late June for a veto session, where they may give the bill final approval. Governor Phil Scott says he’s opposed to the expansion and worries it will have unintended consequences.

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