and the
Citizens Economic Research Foundation


Barbara's Column
March 2003 #2

Expanded bottle bill is all about the money
-- not the environment

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Friday, March 14, 2003

The Romney Administration has been insisting that its focus for the first few months must be the state budget, getting state spending under control. I think most of us would agree with this priority.

But maybe such focus is hard to sustain, even for a business-oriented governor. This might explain why Gov. Mitt Romney takes an occasional moment to do environmentalism: So he can put a little variety in his day. Reorganize human services and higher education, deal with pensions and patronage, cut local aid and administrative overhead, then find a few hours to play Don Quixote attacking the Salem power plant.

While still recovering from that debacle of a visit to the North Shore, the governor found a way to slip an expansion of the bottle bill into the FY 2004 state budget. If asked what returning fruit juice containers to the grocery store has to do with anything at the moment, he responds by talking about the annoying sight of those bottles lying along the highway.

I don't know about you, but I haven't seen many discarded grape juice jars along Rt. 114.

I still don't "get" the distraction of the Salem visit, but I do understand what the bottle issue is all about, and it's not the environment. It's about something called "escheatage," and it has everything to do with money.

The original bottle bill was intended to encourage people to return their soft drink cans so they could recoup their nickel deposit. But in the years of a strong economy, a lot of people apparently didn't need the nickel, and left it with the store, which eventually returned it to the state. This found money is called the "escheat."

Spending this windfall quickly became a state habit. Last year it amounted to over $30 million. That's over 600 million soda cans and bottles that didn't get returned to the store. It's a wonder we can even see the hallowed Massachusetts ground under all that discarded junk!

Actually, some people are probably just throwing those cans and bottles in the trash, though I would hope most of them went into local recycling bins, along with the juice, wine and water containers that will carry a 15-cent deposit charge if the governor's expanded bottle bill passes. If you recycle your beverage containers instead of carrying them back to the grocery or package store, your monetary loss will be the state's escheatage gain.

However, Maine, which is the only other state to have an expanded bottle bill, has lost money. It seems there are some enterprising people who have taken to buying their liquids in another state and carrying them back to Maine for the money. If we have the same law, residents of the other New England states can bring their juice/wine/water bottles here and redeem them for money in the escheat fund.

In other words, they'll cheat on the escheat.

In the meantime, stores must find a place to keep these containers until someone comes to take them away. When I return my soda bottles to Stop & Shop, there are machines to eat cans and glass and plastic containers. But the little room doesn't have space for machines devoted to every size and shape of juice or water container.

So once again businesses and consumers will be burdened with the task of bailing state government out of its spending crisis.

And why stop with soda, beer, wine, juice and water? Why not add a charge to a can of peas, a tin of tuna, a box of cereal? All grocery containers could be stored under the kitchen sink and regularly carried back to the store, which would have to add yet another room at the back for their keeping.

After things become ridiculously inconvenient, many of us will put our containers in recycling bins or throw them away, thereby doing the state a big favor by letting it keep our nickels and dimes. That's what this is really all about -- the money, not the environment. That's why the proposal is in the state budget, not filed as a separate bill to be debated on its merits.

You may want to help the state out of its spending crisis by paying a new "fee" on your ability to transport your food; or you could start buying only fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains in bins (bring your own bags), and use a juicer when you get home. After all, life was much simpler before commercial containers became commonplace, and maybe eating fewer processed foods will be good for us.

Just be aware that the consumers' gain would be the state's revenue loss, and the state obviously needs every 5 and 15 cents it can get.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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