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Rising Local Recycling Costs Putting Pressure on Lawmakers To Pass Plastic Bag Ban, Expand Bottle Deposit System

Rising Local Recycling Costs Putting Pressure on Lawmakers To Pass Plastic Bag Ban, Expand Bottle Deposit System

Hartford Courant, May 9, 2019

By Greg Hladky

Here’s an interesting chain of causation: A policy shift by China triggers major cost increases for municipal recycling in Connecticut resulting in huge pressure on the General Assembly to ban plastic bags and expand the bottle deposit system.

Environmentalists and municipal officials say lobbying by cities and towns is having a big effect as state lawmakers head into the final weeks of their 2019 session.

“Municipal leaders across the state are working hard to push state legislators, before the session adjourns on June 5, to enact both the bottle bill and a ban on plastic bags,” Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said Wednesday. Municipal leaders across the state are working hard to push state legislators, before the session adjourns on June 5, to enact both the bottle bill and a ban on plastic bags.

Maloney called those bills “critical pieces of legislation to help towns better cope with the collapse in the recycling market which has changed municipal recycling from a revenue producer to a major cost item for towns everywhere in Connecticut.”

“They’re struggling with how to address that,” Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, said of municipal officials facing rapidly increasing costs for disposal of recycled materials. Gara added that local residents are also pushing for action to halt the litter of plastic bottles in parks and plastic bags in rivers, streams and ponds.

“Clearly, the appetite to do it is there,” Amanda Schoen, deputy director of the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, said of growing legislative support for action on recycling issues.

“I think everybody recognizes there’s a crisis in recycling,” said Rep. Mike Demicco, a Farmington Democrat who is co-chair of the legislature’s environment committee.

Environmental activists have been lobbying for years to ban plastic bags and expand Connecticut’s bottle deposit system. But it is the ballooning cost of local recycling that is now the driving force behind the current legislative debate, and the crisis over disposing of recyclable materials in this country was ignited by China.

China once imported more than $5.6 billion a year in recycled materials from the U.S. But Chinese officials in the past two years have effectively halted most recycling imports from the U.S., creating a massive glut of used paper and plastics in the U.S.

The result for Connecticut cities and towns is a massive switch in recycling programs from generating local revenue to a growing cost burden.

Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said cities and towns that were accustomed to getting paid modest amounts for recycled materials are now having to shell out $75 to $100 a ton to have their recyclables “shipped to be burned or landfilled.”

Single-use plastic bags are also a major headache and cost factor for recycling operations, and those costs are now often being passed along to cities and towns. Municipal leaders hope that expanding the bottle deposit law to include juice and other soft drink bottles and increasing deposits will help remove millions of plastic bottles that are now flooding into overloaded recycling centers.

In this 2018 file photo, plastic bags and containers jam the screens of a giant sorting machine at Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, used to separate recyclables. New Britain is considering a ban on single-use plastic bags at supermarkets and other stores. (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

“We’re cautiously optimistic that the momentum is on our side,” Schoen said.  

Different interest groups back to top

But the debate over both bottle deposits and plastic bags involves multiple special interest and environmental groups that can often have different attitudes about what should be in recycling legislation.

There are now at least two anti-plastic bag bills alive in the General Assembly.

The environment committee version would ban single-use plastic shopping bags from many stores beginning in January. The bill would also require any paper bags provided to customers at those stores be 100 percent recyclable.

But that legislation has exemptions that include so-called compostable plastic bags and plastic bags for pharmacy prescriptions, unwrapped food items and clothing on hangers.

A second plastic bag proposal is included in a Democratic budget plan that passed the appropriations committee. That version calls for placing a 10-cent fee on both plastic and paper shopping bags, with the idea of encouraging consumers to bring their own re-useable bags when shopping. That version also includes various exemptions.

Most environmental groups oppose such exemptions and, like municipal officials, are pushing hard for tougher action on plastic bags. “We want an outright ban,” Schoen said.

The Food Association of Connecticut, which represents about 240 food stores and food distributors, has also called for a plastic bag ban. Wayne Pesce, the group’s president, said his members want at least a portion of any fee on shopping bags to go to the stores to help offset their extra bag costs.

It can cost about a penny to produce a single-use plastic bag, while making a paper bag can cost 4 to 5 cents each, according to industry experts.

Pesce said the momentum for a statewide ban on plastic bags is clear. “Over 25 communities in the state have now passed local bans,” he said, explaining most retailers would prefer to see a uniform statewide ban. Pesce added that Gov. Ned Lamont has also voiced support for a ban.

The existing bill to expand Connecticut’s bottle deposit system calls for placing an increased deposit fee on most juice, tea and sports or energy drink containers in addition to beer and soda cans and bottles. The required deposit would increase on all such containers from the current 5 cents to 10 cents by July 2022.

Beer and soda distributors have traditionally opposed any increase in the deposit fees, arguing that it would hurt consumers and sales of those products.

The per-container handling fee that drink distributors are required to pay retailers and redemption centers for processing returned containers would be increased by as much as 2.5 cents per container under the proposed legislation.

The state now takes all unclaimed deposits. The legislation currently under consideration would reduce that amount, with 20 percent of that money going to beverage distributors.

Lamont originally proposed including glass wine and liquor bottles under the deposit system, but his plan drew strong opposition from package stores as well as wine and liquor distributors.

Carroll Hughes, a package store lobbyist, said the main problem his clients had with the governor’s plan was that they “don’t have room in their stores” to handle returned wine and liquor bottles.

But most supermarkets and grocery stores would have no problem handling wine bottles being returned for deposits, Pesce said, as long as they could also sell those products the way grocery stores in many neighboring states do.

“We’ve been looking to sell wine in our grocery stores for years,” he said.