Expansion of Vermont’s bottle bill faces an uncertain fate in the final moments of the session

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

Legislation that would expand Vermont’s bottle bill faces an uncertain fate in the House after passing the Senate on Wednesday morning. 

Though the bill has passed both chambers, lawmakers in the House must now reconcile amendments added to the bill in the Senate — and time is running out. 

The bottle bill, passed in 1972, established a redemption system that charges consumers a deposit, worth a few cents, when they buy certain beverages. Consumers can recoup that money when they return the empty containers to redemption centers and retail markets. 

The bill currently before lawmakers, H.175, would expand the types of beverages covered by the law. It would include, for example, water bottles, hard cider and sports drinks. Currently, the law covers only 46% of beverages sold in the state. 

Senators narrowly voted 17-13 to pass the bill Wednesday morning. It needed 15 votes to clear the 30-member chamber. 

With the legislative session careening to a close in the next few days, Conor Kennedy, chief of staff to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said he was not sure the bottle bill would “get here in time.”

Gov. Phil Scott appears uneasy about the bill, though he hasn’t said outright that he’d veto it. His office “has not thoroughly reviewed the current iteration yet given very recent changes, so no decisions have been made,” Jason Maulucci, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in an email. 

“With previous versions of the bill, the Governor has shared concerns that were raised by the bipartisan group of senators who voted ‘no’ today that implementation could be unfeasible,” Maulucci wrote.

Senators asked questions on the floor Wednesday about provisions in the bill they said would make it more complicated to implement. For example, the bill stipulates that there must be three redemption centers per county — at least one in any municipality with more than 7,000 people — and one within a 15-minute drive of every person in the state, unless a waiver is granted. 

Manufacturers and distributors who sell beverage containers in Vermont must participate in producer responsibility organizations, which would set up a convenient system for Vermonters to turn in their covered redeemables. 

Supporters of the legislation, such as the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has long pushed for a modernized bottle bill, say it would help reduce plastic pollution and encourage an efficient, closed-loop recycling system. Around 75% of covered containers are redeemed each year, according to VPIRG. 

Marcie Gallagher, an environmental advocate for VPIRG, said she doesn’t agree with those who believe implementing the bill would be complicated. 

“I just think we don't often think about the systems behind the programs we use,” she said. “And so when it's all laid in front of us, we’re like, ‘Omigod, there's so many steps. I thought it was as easy as just bringing a bottle to a redemption center.’ But of course it's not that easy.”

Others, namely Casella Waste Systems, have taken issue with the bill, partly because it diverts valuable recyclables from the single-stream recycling system, which handles all recyclables other than those covered under the bottle bill. 

Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella Waste Systems, said the bottle bill was a good idea back when recycling infrastructure was first budding. 

“This is our view: that bottle bills aren't necessary, but they also mess up the economics of this recycling system we have, because they grab material from the system, whose operating costs and whose capital costs remain fixed,” he said. 

Gallagher said redemption systems create a system in which recyclables can “so much more easily be turned into new containers, circularly recycled, which has the highest environmental benefit.”

That’s opposed to single-stream recycling, she said, where recyclables are more often used for things that can’t be recycled again, such as construction materials or road aggregate. 

“The real benefit of keeping things out of our landfill is when you recycle something over and over and over again, which happens when you turn a glass bottle into a glass bottle, or can into a can, et cetera,” she said.

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: emma@vtdigger.org

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