Energy & Environment

Businesses bash bottle bill reforms — publicly, this time — as they head to House floor

Bales of plastic bottles await collection outside Chittenden Solid Waste District’s ‘material recovery facility’ Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

Leaders of Vermont business organizations and waste disposal companies have panned a proposal to expand Vermont’s “bottle law,” as the Vermont House prepares to vote on the bill later this week.

H.175 proposes broadening a 1970s law that establishes 5- to 15-cent incentives for returning disposable beverage containers to redemption centers. The legislation would add a new slate of packaged beverages — including bottled water, sports drinks and some craft alcohol — to the list of returnables, tacking return incentives of up to 5 cents onto those containers.

Environmental lobbyists say the bill will reduce fracking and increase the number of containers made from recycled material. 

But business leaders on Wednesday shared their longstanding worry that the bill will impose greater costs on Vermonters  — without spurring a substantial increase in the amount of material the state recycles. 

“The bottom line is the expanded bottle bill is bad for our economy and bad for our environment,” Todd Bouton, general manager of South Burlington-based Farrell Distributing, said at a press conference of Vermont business leaders Wednesday morning. “I urge members of the House to vote no on H.175.”

The House Committee on Appropriations endorsed the legislation last week, and the bill is scheduled for a full vote by the lower chamber on Thursday.

Business interests’ public condemnation of the bill comes on the heels of criticisms by lawmakers of a surreptitious, “grassroots” lobbying campaign they staged in an attempt at stirring opposition to the recycling reforms. 

Through a Facebook page called Vermonters for Recycling, which claims to be a “community organization” that “advocates for smart, reasonable and effective solutions for the effective reuse of waste materials in Vermont,” Boston-based Five Corners Strategies raised concerns about the potential costs H.175 would inflict on Vermonters. The page encouraged Vermonters to contact their legislators in opposition to the bill.

The lobbying firm was running the campaign on behalf of Casella Waste Management and the Vermont Wholesale Beverage Association, Five Corners partner Thomas Ahern told VTDigger last week. Montpelier-based Leonine Public Affairs also contributed to the campaign, said Ahern, whose company specializes in running “innovative grassroots” public affairs campaigns.

The effort used what Ahern termed a “patch call” strategy, which connected Vermonters directly to their representatives after a lobbyist reached them by phone about the bottle bill. 

In interviews with VTDigger last week, lawmakers and constituents described those calls as awkward and uncomfortable.

Nowhere on the Facebook page did Vermonters for Recycling identify itself as affiliated with Casella, the Wholesale Beverage Association or either lobbying firm. And in at least one comment on the page, the group explicitly denied its affiliation with the wholesale beverage association in an exchange with a user asking if the organization was driving the campaign.

Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, decried the approach last week as an example of “astroturfing”  — a term meant to describe the couching of corporate interests in grassroots-style advocacy. VPIRG has been a longtime supporter of bottle law reforms.

Responding Wednesday to those critiques, Casella Environmental Compliance Manager Kim Crosby said grassroots campaigns are wielded commonly by other lobbying efforts, including VPIRG, and the Vermonters for Recycling campaign did not cross any lines.

“We’re not doing anything different than what they’re doing,” Crosby said at the press conference.

Burns called that claim disingenuous, emphasizing that the group’s unwillingness to be transparent about its backing set the campaign apart from others.

“Not everybody lies about who they are or intentionally tries to deceive lawmakers and the public as they make their case,” he told VTDigger. “That’s true even of other industry folks. I go up against industry all the time, and I don’t see this happen often at all.”

Business and recycling leaders’ opposition to the bill rests partly on the findings of a 2013 Agency of Natural Resources report, which determined that expanding the bottle law would increase the incentive program’s operating costs by around $11 million per year, while increasing the rate at which the state recycles waste by only about 1%.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Citizen Cider owner Justin Heilenbach said the timing of the bill risks hurting his cidery’s profits in the outer months of the pandemic. Adding containers to the list of returnables poses additional challenges for redemption centers, said Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, a grocery store owner who used to run a redemption center but doesn’t anymore.

After the publication of the 2013 report, which was cited by business leaders on Wednesday as evidence of bottle law reforms, local and national recycling organizations pushed back on its findings. Those organizations included the Container Recycling Institute, the Glass Packaging Institute, Strategic Materials and several others.

They claimed the investigation understated unclaimed container deposits and was overly optimistic about the benefits of single-stream recycling — which business and recycling groups commonly describe as a preferred alternative to bottle law reform — among multiple other alleged errors.

“While each of the errors may make only a small impact, cumulatively they create a compounding effect and greatly distort the report’s findings and conclusions,” the recycling groups wrote in a 2013 letter to then-Vermont Environmental Conservation commissioner David Mears. 

Because H.175 missed the Legislature’s March crossover deadline — a date by which bills must move from one chamber to the other — the law is unlikely to take effect until 2022, provided it passes the House. 

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. James McCulllough, D-Williston, did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday on H.175’s progress.

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James Finn

About James

James is a senior at Middlebury College majoring in history and Spanish. He is currently editor at large at the Middlebury Campus, having previously served as managing editor, news editor and in several other roles there. James was a reporter this summer at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and earlier was an intern at the Addison County Independent.

Email: [email protected]

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