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February 9, 2023

Connecticut’s new bottle law — the bumpy road to 10 cents

Jan Ellen Spiegel / CT Mirror East Haven Bottle Return has a high speed mechanical bottle counter. But sorting has to be done by hand.

In Connecticut, it’s still called the “bottle bill” even though a deposit and return system for bottles and cans has been actual law since 1978.

That law has been updated only twice. The first time was in 2009 when bottled water was added to the very short list of beverages — soda and beer — that would carry a deposit, redeemable at designated collection locations. You paid five cents when you bought it; you got five cents back when you returned it.

The second update became law in 2021. For consumers, the first noticeable changes from it are just starting. As of Jan. 1, many more bottle and can types now have redeemable deposits — the first step in a year-long lead up to doubling the deposit to 10 cents, scheduled for Jan. 1, 2024.

But it’s not as simple as it sounds.

A slew of changes for implementation of the revised system have been rolling out since just after the updated bottle bill was signed into law. It’s been a little bumpy. Some elements are delayed, and there are disputes over interpretation. Also, the legislature did not include a mechanism for telling the public.

“We scrambled in November to create a website and signage because we knew it wasn’t coming,” said Wayne Pesce, president of the Connecticut Food Association, a trade group. “There was no air cover for consumers.”

So in partnership with a couple of the companies that make machinery for bottle returns and with the blessing of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which oversees waste disposal and implementation of the bottle regulations, the association launched

“The bill should have included a public education, public information component that gave the state a budget and gave the state a punch list of things to do to educate consumers,” said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, an advocacy group that tracks bottle regulations worldwide. “Here’s the change, it’s happening on this date, and here’s what you need to do in order to get your deposit refunded.”

Along with all the new bottles that now carry deposits, there are changes to the options for returning them. Just about any store that sells drinks with a deposit is required to take back the empties and give you your money.

They are only required to take back what they sell. They are allowed to take back more, but that’s not something consumers can count on.

Only certain stores are required to have self-service machines — known as reverse vending machines (RVMs) — to receive empty bottles. As of Jan. 1, many more stores must have the RVMs.

In addition to the major grocery store chains, which have been taking bottles and cans back that way for more than four decades, large chain drugstores like CVS and Walgreens, as well as other chains like Dollar General and Target and Walmart, have had to install RVMs to accept returns for at least the brands they sell.

The key to one-stop returning, known as universal returns, is private redemption centers. They take back everything. They’re also critical for low-income areas that often don’t have major grocery stores. But universal redemption centers have also had a bumpy ride since the 2021 legislation.

There used to be many of these centers in the state, but the cost to run them was prohibitive, and many closed. The 2021 revision to the law increased the handling fees to retailers and center owners to help them maintain redemption operations. That increase went into effect Oct. 1, 2021.

“The handling fees did help us a lot as far as helping offset some of the cost of doing business,” said Priyal Garala, whose family business now has five redemption centers. The first opened in 2010 in South Windsor. The two most recent openings were in Middletown in January and in East Haven shortly before that.

But there’s been another wrinkle. For Garala, it affects his East Haven operation.

An item in the governor’s budget, not the bottle law itself, allocated $5 million in grants to fund redemption centers in environmental justice communities. East Haven qualifies as one, so Garala applied for a grant to purchase equipment to speed up sorting, which must currently be done by hand after bottles run through the high-speed counting machines.

He’s still waiting for the grant.

So are 13 other applicants, according to DEEP. The department has hired a third-party vendor to sort through the applications.

“We’re expecting to be able to get through the applications within the first quarter or second quarter at worst this year,” said James Albis, director of the Office of Policy and Planning in DEEP’s Bureau of Materials Management.

In the meantime, a couple of dozen redemption centers are open, but almost all have very limited hours. You can see them on a map maintained by DEEP or one by the food association that also shows a wider range of redemption locations. But there are still big gaps in coverage. There are no universal redemption locations in Fairfield County, or in Bridgeport, New Haven and New London, all of which have sizable environmental justice populations.

“That is something that’s been a big miss,” Pesce said. “No doubt about that.”

On the flip side, Collins at the Recycling Institute said her organization has surveyed RVM manufacturers who indicate there are machines being installed in more than 300 stores. But she said the state needs to prioritize the underserved low-income areas. “That was the whole point of putting in that $5 million grant program,” she said.

Aside from the many additional beverages subject to deposits, the law also set a policy for those miniature alcoholic beverages containers, referred to as “nips,” which are 50 milliliters or smaller. Beginning in October 2021, a 5-cent charge was added to each — the money to be distributed to municipalities for litter control and other waste cleanups.

Also in the new law, unclaimed deposits, known as escheats, which for years have gone into the general fund, are now being divided between the general fund and distributors. It’s a sliding scale so that by fiscal year 2025, 55% of the unclaimed funds will go to distributors. With the increased deposit next year and the anticipated increase in bottles that are returned as a result, however, the general fund could end up getting more money from the program than it gets now.

Tweaks to the overall law are in play this legislative session, including settling a controversy over whether spirit-based hard seltzers and canned cocktails are or aren’t in the deposit category. Malt-based hard seltzers have had deposits going back to the original bottle law.

The original intent of Connecticut’s bottle law was litter control. Since then, it has become a critical cog in overhauling the waste disposal models in the state. More and more, the goal has become to get as many items as possible out of the waste stream, and that includes those that go into the blue recycle bin.

Market forces have made getting rid of recyclables problematic and expensive. By getting as much plastic, glass and metal out of the bins, where they often are too contaminated to recycle, it helps ensure a cleaner product that can be used in recycled form.

While the state was the sixth in the country to begin a deposit and return system for bottles and cans — initially just soda and beer — only 10 states in the U.S. have that even now.

Even so, Connecticut had fallen behind with one of the lowest return rates, not just in the nation but in the world. The culprit is widely believed to be the 5-cent deposit, which is considered too low to incentivize bringing bottles back to the store. Connecticut is lucky if the return rate cracks 50%. By contrast, Germany, with a 25-cent deposit, has a 98% return rate.

What is arguably the most radical piece of Connecticut’s bottle law update is unlikely to be implemented anytime soon. It involves the idea of product stewardship, which is when the manufacturer of a product is responsible for its disposal.

Any kind of full move to a stewardship system has people like Garala worried that it could put him out of business.

“Their main goal is not to improve recycling. Their main goal is to minimize cost,” he said. “I think it's better that we have more independent ... our own redemptions versus having big corporate put up redemptions.”

Albis said the law addresses that. “It requires that any stewardship plan that's approved ensure consideration for those stakeholders as well as other stakeholders,” he said. “That's part of the law that we have to consider the existing infrastructure.”

The model for the country is Oregon, the first state with a bottle law. Not only is its return rate often north of 80% with a 10-cent deposit — the amount that Connecticut will move to next January — it’s also pioneered an innovative collection system. Consumers have the option to bring back bags of bottles with a scannable label that credits their returns to an account. It’s a drop-off, so there's no waiting or fussing with machines — though that option is available. The cost to run it is borne by a stewardship organization.

While the state has looked at the Oregon model, and it’s possible a stewardship program could adopt all or some of it, for now Connecticut is essentially patching up its old system.

“I personally believe what we dealt with in the new law was the best way to get under the hood with the bill that we've had,” Pesce said. "What I believe is that we need a 21st century model, not a 20th century model.

“We put a new catalytic converter on the car. We put new tires and a new battery in. It's what we did. We patched it up. This becomes a problem again, five to eight years.”

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