You Asked, We Answered: Why Doesn't New Hampshire Have a Bottle Deposit Law?

Aug 14, 2018

For the latest in our Only in New Hampshire series, we’re taking on a question from listener Meg Miles. She asks: Why is New Hampshire the only state in the region without a bottle deposit

Bottle deposit laws are pretty rare in the United States. If you check out that list of state abbreviations on your beer or soda bottle, you’ll notice that only a handful of states have made the cut.

And Meg is right. Most of New England happens to be on the list -- only New Hampshire and Rhode Island are left off. But that has less to do with this particular region than it does with a nationwide opposition to these systems.

It’s been four years since the last bottle deposit law was proposed in New Hampshire. Chuck Weed was in his 7th term in the House of Representatives, and he figured he’d give a bottle bill a try.

“Since I’m a supporter of recycling,” Chuck explains, “I certainly believe we don’t need trash on the side of the road and I know that the bottle deposit is something that is happening in many states where it’s working very well, I said, well, let’s do that here in New Hampshire.”

For a long time, our soda and our beer and our milk came in glass bottles that we returned to distributors to be used over and over again. Enter the steel can in the 1930s, and suddenly consumers were free to throw their empties out anywhere! Including the bushes. Or their local lake.

As you can imagine, we very quickly developed a litter problem. The bottle deposit law was introduced to fix that, to make containers valuable to consumers so they’d think twice before throwing them to the side of the road. Chuck saw this as something that could only help recycling rates -- and the idea turned out to be an unpopular one.

“Sure enough, the lobbyists turned out in great number [...] and with their compelling arguments convinced the -- usually it was a Republican majority -- [...] that we’d do better if we had people pick up on the side of the road their particular mile that they’re assigned to, and that bottle bills didn’t work. And look at what’s happening in other states where they’re getting rid of their bottle bills, and that was pretty much the end of the story.”

A bottle deposit redemption center.

Deposit laws may seem insignificant at first glance. The consumer pays five or ten cents extra for certain beverages and can then get that five or ten cents back if they return that container to a redemption center.

Because prices are driven by a number of complicated factors , it’s possible for a bottle of beer to be cheaper in bottle deposit states than in states without. Which means that that extra nickel or dime may go unnoticed by consumers.

But it isn’t typically the consumer who lobbies against deposit laws -- it’s the manufacturer.

John Dumais is the President and CEO of the New Hampshire Grocers’ Association. He’s also chairman of the board of New Hampshire the Beautiful, a charitable trust that supports recycling efforts in the state. The non-profit is also funded by New Hampshire’s soft drink, beverage and grocers’ associations -- all of which are opposed to bottle bills.

“We saw that having a bottle bill would be detrimental to the industry and all of the industries, anything in the food and beverage industries,” says John, “they’re usually very slim profit margins. For grocery stores, it’s less than 2%, usually 1% to 1.5%, so that means a penny on every dollar is all we get for net profit. And the same happens for the soft drink and beer distributors as well. It’s labor-intensive and there’s a lot of inventory needed with that, and so adding something more to that, an expense to that, would be detrimental.”

Each time a bottle bill has been proposed in New Hampshire, the Beverage and Grocers’ Associations lobby against it, just as Chuck Weed experienced when he proposed that bill in 2014. And this same scene plays out across the country -- big beverage against bottle bills.

The main argument? Bottle deposits mean greater cost -- to manufacturers, to retailers and to consumers. And New Hampshire in particular, they say, would suffer if we had such a law.

“So, if you talk about a six pack of soda, beer, any kind of things that would have a deposit in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, or any other New England states except Rhode Island,” John says, “their cost is going to be more expensive for the product than it is coming from New Hampshire. That’s why we have so much more cross-border sales, buying the product here and taking it back home”

New Hampshire does have lots of cross-border sales. But those sales tend to be attributed to our lack of a sales tax -- not our lack of a bottle deposit. Still, representatives of the beverage industry argue that New Hampshire could lose customers, and eventually jobs, if a bottle deposit law were introduced. Ray Dube, another board member of New Hampshire the Beautiful, and sustainability manager for Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England, also argues that many people wouldn’t be interested in participating.

“Does your average consumer stockpile their aluminum cans in their garage or in their home so that they can bring them down to the scrapyard to sell on a per-pound basis? No, they don’t.

That’s usually a lot of homeless people,” Ray says, “but then it’s people that are more struggling for money, things like that. Cause nobody wants to put that bag of dirty cans in their car and drive it to the scrap yard. Nobody wants to see those bags with all the bees and all the other bugs piled in their garage and all of that. So people won’t do that now for the money. They want to put it in the bin, they want it on the curb, they want to take it to the transfer station and be done with it.”

Participation in these programs does vary. In Connecticut it’s currently around 50%, but in Michigan, a little over 90. In states where the deposit is higher, participation tends to be higher. The bottles are worth more. When a container isn’t redeemed, the deposit money either goes into state coffers, or helps manufacturers and distributors pay for the whole system.

But the beverage industry tends to argue that, regardless, bottle deposit laws are expensive, inefficient, inconvenient for the public and not the way to boost recycling... which, when it boils down to it, is the point. So non-profit organizations like New Hampshire the Beautiful, supported by the beverage industry, instead help to fund efforts like curbside recycling, anti-litter programs and educational outreach -- they leave deposit laws out of that mix.

There are deposit law supporters out there, though. Like Susan Collins, President of the Container Recycling Institute. Her organization was founded, in part, to research and support bottle bill legislation. And she sees the beverage industry argument as a self-serving one.

“The model that they are proposing and stating is the best,” Susan says, “is the one where the beverage industry doesn’t pay for recycling. It’s one where the municipalities pay for recycling.”  

When it comes to best practices for container recycling, Susan and her team throw a lot of weight behind deposit laws. And, she says, the numbers reflect the efficacy of these programs.

“When we studied this issue a few years ago,” Susan explains, “we found that six of the top ten recycling states in the United States are states that have container deposit laws.”

Susan says that it’s true that these programs come at a cost. But she has seen them result in higher quality recyclable material, which is ultimately worth more. Like furnace-ready glass, which can be turned back into glass bottles, or into fiberglass.

“We had stats for the states of Ohio and Rhode Island, and those places were collecting and creating 7-10 pounds per capita for furnace-ready glass,” Susan says, “whereas the state of Maine was around 70. So it’s a factor of ten to one.”  

Though members of the beverage industry call bottle deposit programs inconvenient for consumers, Susan says that consumers are overwhelmingly in favor of these programs in states where bottle deposit laws are in place.

“When there is a poll done in any of the states that have existing deposit laws, we’ve seen support between 70% and all the way up to 95% in, I think, Vermont. So much so that the pollsters had to double check their numbers because they didn’t believe what they were seeing. Once a program is in place they’re popular with consumers like more than motherhood and apple pie.”

Competing opinions -- even competing facts -- can be found at every step of the bottle bill way. Proponents singing praise, while beverage and grocers associations work hard to avoid or repeal this legislation. It’s a decades-old battle with no end in sight.

Meanwhile, Susan says, existing bottle deposit laws are stuck in the past, “many of them have been really stuck in a rut for many years,” she explains, “because they haven’t been allowed to modernize. They haven’t been allowed to cover more materials types and to have the deposit raised from 5 cents to 10 cents. I mean, we literally have laws that are 30 years-old and the deposit has been at the same exact level the whole time.”

Studies conducted by the Container Recycling Institute show that states with bottle bills have an average recycling rate of around 60-percent, while states without average closer to 24-percent. And in areas of the world where recycling policy and public opinion tends to be stronger, namely Europe, Coca-Cola has actually recommended steps for creating a successful bottle deposit scheme.

When reached for comment, Coca-Cola reiterated that “deposit systems are incredibly complex to operate, and result in an inefficient, costly process that diverts valuable recyclables from community collection programs.”

They also said that Coke is committed to the environment -- they plan to collect and recycle 100-percent of what they put into the marketplace by 2030.

There is little in the way of new bottle bill legislation this year in the U.S.. Iowa and Michigan are talking about expanding theirs, while Massachusetts has a bill on the table that would repeal theirs.

And here in New Hampshire, many equate the bottle deposit fee with  a tax - often a death knell for proposed legislation in the Live Free or Die state. There was no bottle bill legislation proposed in this year’s session.

Meanwhile, people are arrested every year for crossing the border into Maine, or Michigan, to cash in.

Do you have a question about a quirk of New Hampshire or your community? Submit it on our Only in NH series page, and we could be in touch for a future story!