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Nip shock: CT consumers buy 132 million nip liquor bottles, creating a messy problem for towns

A volunteer displays nips she found in the bushes behind a park bench at Cleary Square in Hyde Park, MA on October 21, 2021. The group Keep Hyde Park Beautiful is making an effort to collect 10,000 discarded liquor nips bottles from the streets. With no deposits allowed on the tiny bottles, and no way to recycle them, the nips are a persistent litter problem.
Lane Turner
/
The Boston Globe via Getty Images
A volunteer displays nips she found in the bushes behind a park bench at Cleary Square in Hyde Park, MA on October 21, 2021. The group Keep Hyde Park Beautiful is making an effort to collect 10,000 discarded liquor nips bottles from the streets. With no deposits allowed on the tiny bottles, and no way to recycle them, the nips are a persistent litter problem.

There’s a popular beverage of choice in Connecticut — nip liquor bottles. You’ve probably seen them — tiny plastic containers tossed on the ground, slowly wasting away by the roadside.

Connecticut drinks a lot of nips.

From October 2021 through March 2023, more than 132 million nips were sold in the state, according to the Council on Environmental Quality, which just issued a new report on nip sales in Connecticut.

The report breaks down payments to municipalities following a 5-cent surcharge on nip sales lawmakers began in 2021. But it also brings into focus the staggering scope of Connecticut’s nip litter problem.

Imagining each nip is about 4 inches tall, some back-of-the-envelope math yields a stunning result: Stack those 132 million nips together, and you get a hypothetical nip tower more than 8,000 miles high.

That’s high enough to reach well into space.

Across Connecticut, those discarded nip bottles are showing up everywhere – roads, sidewalks and in gutters.

“Because they are, unfortunately, often consumed while walking back from events – or in cars – they’re often tossed out to the side of the road,” said Keith Ainsworth, acting chair of the state Council on Environmental Quality. “They are a very noticeable litter issue in Connecticut.”

Connecticut is taking steps to address the nip problem. In October 2021, the state added a 5-cent surcharge to sales of miniature beverage containers of 50 milliliters (or smaller) that contained spirits or liquor. The money is returned to cities and towns based on the number of nips sold in that municipality.

In 2021, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Connecticut acknowledged the environmental problem with nips.

“There is no denying that the proliferation of the sale and consumption of miniature bottles of spirits or ‘Nips,’ has been a contributor to our state’s litter problem,” Lawrence Cafero, the group’s executive director, said in testimony submitted to the legislature in 2021.

Lawmakers decided to go ahead with the idea, signing the fee into law in 2021. But in an effort to reduce the number of checks a town would get, lawmakers allowed the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers group to aggregate the 5-cent fees and cut checks to towns.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s a lot of money.

Through March 2023, Ainsworth said about $6.6 million had been distributed. But the CEQ report found that nearly half of towns surveyed had yet to expend any of the money.

“I think the municipalities, to be quite candid, were a little blindsided,” Ainsworth said. “Many of them didn’t know these funds were coming. They saw what they were tied to, and they tried to come up with something that fit within the category.”

The money must be used for solid waste reduction or litter reduction, Ainsworth said. The CEQ is tasked by law with tracking how cities and towns use the money.

Ainsworth says municipalities are spending the money the way the law intended, but there’s been “a fairly broad range of interpretations of that.”

Cities and towns have committed to spending the money on personnel costs, new equipment and education programs to combat litter and reduce waste, he said.

So far, New Haven has gotten the most money of any municipality, about $300,000.

Lawmakers have floated the idea of banning the sale of nips. A bill this year proposed giving cities and towns local authority to prohibit nip sales, but the measure was never taken for a vote. Cafero, from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Connecticut, strongly opposed the idea, saying it would overturn “90 years of precedent” of state authority over liquor sales.

Cafero said a ban would simply push residents to make purchases in towns that allow nip sales and that “the discarding of the container would happen regardless.” He also noted that lawmakers could do a better job tracking how cities are using the nip-fee money to address litter.

But municipal bureaucracy means that there’s often a delay in figuring out what to do with funds, such as making a hire or buying equipment, Ainsworth said.

In other words: There’s no quick way to nip this litter problem in the bud.

“They're not very easily handled by our recycling system,” Ainsworth said. “And until we catch up as a society in providing the means to do it, we're going to have a litter problem.”

Read more: CEQ annual report on Miniature Beverage Containers in Connecticut.

This story has been updated to reflect the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Connecticut's stance on the 2021 nip surcharge.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.
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