Massachusetts voters consider adding 5 cent deposits to bottled water, other containers

Both sides in the debate over Question 2 on the Nov. 4 ballot say much has changed in the more than three decades since Massachusetts first passed a bottled deposit law.

Proponents of the measure that would expand the scope of the law say a variety of beverages that were largely unheard-of on store shelves at the time have become consumer staples — all the while adding to the state's litter woes.

"There was virtually no such thing, when you walked into a supermarket, as bottled water, sports drinks, vitamin water or Diet Snapple peach-flavored teas," said Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. "There is this entire market of containers that have become litter or trash because they were not defined in the current law."

But what has also changed, opponents of the ballot question argue, is the way Americans handle the trash they produce. Slow but steady gains in recycling, including municipal programs that pick up recyclable materials in front of people's homes, are making returnable containers unnecessary, they say.

"It's really undermining a system that has evolved and works better than loading up your containers and driving them back to the grocery store," said Nicole Giambusso, spokeswoman for No on Question 2: Stop Forced Deposits. "We should be looking at modern technology and not at something that was created for 1982."

The ballot measure, if approved, would add 5-cent deposits to most non-alcoholic and non-carbonated beverage containers.

It would also allow the nickel deposit — unchanged since the original law was approved — to increase with inflation in future years and require that unclaimed deposits be earmarked for a special state environmental fund.

After trying without success to convince the Massachusetts Legislature to make the changes, activists opted to take their case directly to voters. But the ballot campaign has met with stiff opposition from industry groups that through Oct. 20 had spent more than $8.2 million, much of it on an advertising blitz, according to state campaign finance records.

By contrast, a coalition of environmental groups supporting Question 2 had collectively spent about $900,000.

The opposition has been largely funded by supermarket chains, which would have to deal with the added volume of extra containers being returned, and the Washington-based American Beverage Association, which lobbies for soft drink companies.

A TV ad run by opponents that claimed 90 percent of Massachusetts residents have access to curbside recycling was fiercely challenged by backers of the ballot question, who cite state figures showing that only 47.5 percent of cities and towns, covering about 63 percent of the state's population, offer curbside recycling.

"They went on the air and lied," said Domenitz.

Opponents denied misleading voters, though later ads against Question 2 used revised language, saying 90 percent of residents had access to curbside or other "community recycling."

Expanding the bottle deposit law would hike prices for beverages and add millions in handling costs for bottle returns, in part because of the need to purchase new equipment to handle different-sized containers, Giambusso said.

Environmental groups embrace curbside recycling but also point to its limitations. It doesn't account for beverages consumed in parks, on beaches or any number of other places outside the home, Domenitz said.

Citing estimates from the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Coalition for an Updated Bottle Bill says 80 percent of carbonated beverage containers have been either redeemed or recycled over the past five years, while the recycling rate for containers not subject to the current deposit law is only 23 percent.