Reps. Christine Palm and Gerry Reyes, both supporters ion the bootle bill, check the tally board, MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG
Rep. Mary Mushinsky photographs the tally boad. At right are the co-chairs of the Environment Committee, Sen. Christine Cohen and Rep. Joe Gresko. MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

The bottle bill expansion approved Thursday night by the House of Representative reflects ambitions for the future of recycling in Connecticut that stretch beyond a doubling of the deposit on returnables to a dime on Jan. 1, 2024.

Consumers will feel an impact in the pocketbook: The list of returnable beverage cans and bottles will grow in 2023, a year before the nickel deposit is increased for the first time since the bottle return law was passed in 1978.

But passage of the updated bottle bill by surprisingly lopsided votes in the Senate and House is seen by advocates as a political recognition of the fast-approaching crisis in recycling and waste disposal in Connecticut.

The House vote was 105-42, with 90 Democrats and 15 Republicans in favor. The Senate passed it Wednesday night, 33-1.

“There is a bottle bill headed to the governor’s desk — even that fact is remarkable,” said Katie Dykes, the commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “It reflects a lot of hard work and constructive engagement of many parties.”

Redemption rates on returnable bottles and cans have dropped below 50%, and the state is facing the closure of an outdated regional trash-to-energy plant operated by MIRA, the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority.

“When MIRA closes, suddenly we’re going to get smacked upside the head,” said Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford.

 Municipalities are bracing for a doubling or tripling of waste-disposal costs.

“Right now, we know we have this sort of silent crisis going on. And I say silent, because most people don’t know what’s happening,” said Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Environment Committee. “Our municipal leaders know it’s happening. Legislative leaders know it’s happening. DEEP knows it’s happening.”

The bill sent to the governor is aspirational. 

Aside from concrete changes in the bottle-and-can redemption system, it directs Dykes to engage the wine and spirits industry over how to remove their glass bottles from the waste stream and devise incentives for municipalities to voluntarily adopt pay-as-you-throw systems in which disposal costs to residents are pegged to the volumes of waste.

“A lot of what we’re throwing away is material that can be composted or recycled,” Dykes said.

Bottle and can returns provide a clean stream of recyclables, while too often single-stream recycling –the mix of items placed in blue bins — produce contaminated loads that are incinerated or buried, she said.

The bill creates a framework for the creation of non-profit “stewardship” programs, modeled after efforts in Oregon, Canada and Europe to both reduce non-recyclable packaging and make recycling more efficient and less expensive to municipalities.

Mushinsky worked for passage of the original bottle bill as an organizer with the Connecticut Citizen Action Group in 1978, then was elected to the House in 1980, the year the bottle redemption system went live with deposits on cans and bottles of beer and soda. Bottled water was added to the program in 2009.

“It worked very well at first,” Mushinsky said, noting the initial redemption rate was above 90%. “It has eroded over time, and the legislature didn’t respond.”

In the four decades that followed, she has worked to update and expand the bill, a frustrating task often opposed by food and beverage retailers, beer and soda distributors, and the liquor and wine wholesalers. The bill passed Thursday and sent to the governor is a compromise.

It adds juices, teas, and sports drinks to the beverages that will require deposits, beginning in 2023. The delayed implementation dates were sought by industry, Mushinsky said.

“The bill’s not perfect,” Mushinsky told her colleagues. “But it’s going to help your towns, it’s going to help your town taxpayers. It’s going to clean up the state. It’s going to recycle at a higher percentage. And, overall, it’s a good package that I think will work to improve our solid waste handling in the state.”

Advocates said the higher deposits will raise redemption rates, taking bottles and cans out of the waste stream.

Effective on Oct. 1, 2021, the bill increases handling fees beverage distributors pay to redemption centers, intended to encourage more centers to open. The fees would increase from a penny to 2½ cents on beer and other carbonated alcoholic beverages; and from 2 cents to 3½ cents on soda, water and other non-alcoholic beverages.

Unclaimed deposits once again would be shared with distributors, helping to offset their costs.Unredeemed deposits were kept by the bottlers and distributors from the program’s creation until the Great Recession of 2008. Desperate for revenue, the legislature made them state property, effective April 2009.

Starting next year, 5% will go to the distributors and steadily increase over four years to 55%.

Opponents of the bill said they fear the higher deposits will fall heavily on the urban poor and elderly. Without cars, too few would redeem the bottles and cans.

“They’re on a fixed income,” said Rep. Joshua Hall, D-Hartford. “Take the bus with bags of bottles? I can’t imagine somebody doing that.”

An early version of the bill would have expanded the program to nips, those small bottles of liquor that vex cities as an increasing source of litter.  But the tiny bottles cannot be redeemed in the machines that now process returns.

As an alternative, the bill imposes a 5-cent surcharge, with the proceeds going to the communities where the nips are purchased.

The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Connecticut proposed the surcharge as preferable to a deposit.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.