Bottle Bill History
How did we get here?
Vermont’s Bottle Bill was enacted in 1972 (the same year that VPIRG was established) and was under fire from beverage industry giants from day one. In those early days, we fought hard to protect the law from being rolled back, and we won – the Bottle Bill remains Vermont’s most successful recycling program to this day. But the initial law was limited to covering beverages typically sold in single serving cans and bottles at that time – namely beer and soda. Single serving plastic water bottles were unheard of at that time – as were energy drinks, ready to drink coffee and tea, and many other common beverages sold today.
For decades, Coca-Cola and the other powerful beverage industry players worked hard to create a system in which consumers were responsible for cleaning up their beverage containers and other waste through organizations like “Keep America Beautiful,” all while investing considerable resources to undermine recycling efforts, including Bottle Bills.
Why? While beverage manufacturers were successful in setting up a weak recycling system funded entirely by municipalities and consumers, another type of system was gaining traction – called extended producer responsibility. This is the idea that those who manufacture and profit off single-use waste should be the ones to administer and finance the programs to collect and re-use those materials. Bottle Bills fit within this system. But because large beverage companies had a financial incentive to keep the cost of recycling in the hands of consumers, they had invested considerable lobbying resources to shut down the conversation about updating Vermont’s Bottle Bill for decades.
Vermont’s Bottle Bill program has long been hailed as the state’s most successful and popular recycling program. But since the law was first passed back in 1972, the state had been giving away unclaimed deposits – estimated to be worth well over $2 million per year – to beverage manufacturers and distributors.
For decades, VPIRG worked to end the giveaway of millions of dollars in unclaimed bottle deposits to the beverage industry and put that money to work for Vermonters.
Finally, in May 2018, Governor Phil Scott signed S.285, which reclaims the deposits and puts that money toward helping clean up Vermont’s water ways starting in October 2019. This was a victory many years in the making – the result of hard work and grassroots advocacy by countless VPIRG staffers, members, supporters and allies.
We’re proud to have played an instrumental role in achieving this important victory, and will continue to fight to broaden the scope of the Bottle Bill to include wine bottles as well as a number of containers that didn’t exist when the law was passed more than 45 years ago, such as water bottles and sports drink containers.
2018 Glass Dumping Scandal
In the 2010s, Vermont’s Bottle Bill attracted additional opposition: single stream recyclers. Single stream recycling, now ubiquitous in Vermont and more commonly known as blue-bin recycling, was seen as a solution to a lack of participation in our non-Bottle Bill recycling system. While the Bottle Bill used a 5-cent deposit to achieve extremely high rates of recycling, proponents of single-stream recycling argued that it too could achieve high recycling rates – albeit with a more expensive and less effective process to clean and market those materials on the other end.
The single stream recycling operators in Vermont argued that they were recycling just as effectively as the Bottle Bill and that expanding the Bottle Bill would take away the most profitable materials and thereby hurt recycling efforts in Vermont.
This defense was successful in blocking Bottle Bill modernization efforts for a long time, until they were very publicly exposed for lying; in 2018, state regulators discovered that the Chittenden Solid Waste District – one of Vermont’s two single stream recycling operators – had been improperly dumping all glass that they had been paid to recycle for five years. Some of the glass was dumped over an embankment on CSWD property and some was even secretly discarded in an old landfill.
In all, 18,000 tons – equivalent to 36 million wine bottles – were dumped because the single stream glass was simply too dirty to sell. The glass had become contaminated with bits of trash and other recyclables that people put in their recycling bins. When all that material is collected and crushed together, it makes a mess of otherwise valuable recycling material. This scandal resulted in a $400,000 settlement with the VT Attorney General in 2021. In the meantime, clean Bottle Bill glass continued to be recycled, mostly into new bottles.
This news turned heads for many legislators who had previously been uncomfortable with the idea of the Bottle Bill’s impact on single stream recycling, spurring a renewed push for a modernized Bottle Bill in 2021.
Bottle Bill Modernization Passes House & Senate
As always, industry opponents weren’t going down without a fight. Casella Waste Systems, a regional waste giant that operates the other single stream facility in Vermont teamed up with a lobbying firm to create a fake “pro-recycling” group calling for the elimination of the Bottle Bill. This group also began a now-infamous “patch call” lobbying campaign, earning the ire of Vermonters, legislators, and environmentalists.
In 2021, amidst this heavy corporate pushback, we were able to pass Bottle Bill modernization through the House with 99 votes in support – it was a battle every step of the way, but we knew it would be even harder to get the bill through the Senate.
A statewide poll conducted in 2021 found that 83% of Vermonters wanted to see the Bottle Bill updated, but we wanted to hear this directly – that summer, the Bottle Bill was our summer canvass campaign. We went across the state talking to Vermonters about this bill – hit the doors and gathered 10,000 petition signatures. Our team then used that list to email, call, and phonebank our members and ask them to reach out to their Senators in support of the Bottle Bill – and it worked.
Having passed the House in 2021, the first challenge for the Bottle Bill in the 2022 legislative session was moving the bill through the Senate. Thanks in part to persistent outreach from VPIRG’s members we were able to gather enough support, but there was another positive and unprecedented shift that turned the tables for us in the Senate. For the first time in decades, the beverage industry – Coca-Cola and others – were willing to negotiate to modernize the Bottle Bill.
That was because over the last several years, beverage brands have pledged to increase the amount of recycled plastic in their bottles, and states have followed suit by passing recycled content standards. However, industry experts have warned that the U.S. is not generating enough clean recycled plastic to meet these goals, and expanding and adopting new Bottle Bills would be a key step in increasing the supply of clean, recycled plastic.
The Senate doubled down on the modernization and extended producer responsibility provisions of the bill; they added additional protections for consumers, redemption centers, and grocers and made other changes requested by the beverage industry to allow them to better run the system. But with all these changes, the bill was further delayed. By the time it passed the Senate it was too late to get final approval from the House before the legislature adjourned for the session.
This was incredibly frustrating. So many canvassers, legislators, advocates, and organizers had put incredibly hard work into this campaign only to have it die by not having enough time.
2023 Legislative Battle & Veto
We came back in January of 2023 with hardened resolve and an organized group of allies to pass Bottle Bill modernization, now titled H.158. This time the bill moved through the State House more quickly and with even more support – 16 additional Representatives including several House Republicans decided to support the Bottle Bill this time around, and H.158 also gained 2 additional votes in the Senate.
Once again, we ran up against the clock and ran out of time at the close of the session to win final approval. However, the legislature reconvened a month after adjourning for a special override session to pass the budget, and the House was able to give final approval on June 20th. On June 23rd, H.158 was delivered to the governor’s desk.
Throughout the recent history of Bottle Bill modernization efforts, Governor Scott had expressed consistent opposition. Despite signaling his intention to veto H.158, VPIRG once again mobilized our members to call and write to the governor, urging him to reconsider. Over the course of the 5 days between his receiving the bill and the deadline for executive action, we contacted hundreds of activists and redemption center stakeholders to counter the opposition voices and urge the governor to allow H.158 to pass into law.
The Bottle Bill might seem like a simple recycling program, but it has incredibly powerful and well-resourced opposition. That’s why we’ve been unsuccessful for over 20 years at modernizing the bill. Our corporate adversaries are powerful and so good at sowing doubt. The reason they’re willing to work so hard to undermine our Bottle Bill is because it uses a model that fundamentally reshapes the status quo that waste and beverage corporations have worked so hard to create to shift all burden off themselves and onto the consumer.
And we happen to have a Governor who is very sympathetic to big business and one in particular.
When it comes to special interest groups opposing the Bottle Bill, the waste industry has the governor’s ear first and foremost. The governor’s ties to Vermont waste industry giant Casella are well known; the company was a prominent sponsor of Scott’s racecar and has financially supported his campaigns for governor. Despite being contacted by several Vermont redemption centers who expressed strong support for the impact of this legislation on their small businesses, he listened only to the big business interests that time and time again have mischaracterized and lied about the impacts of the Bottle Bill to preserve their bottom line – lies that are well-documented, even in recent history.
Despite the broad public support for the Bottle Bill legislation: 83% of Vermonters, a significant majority of redemption centers, the industry groups representing glass, aluminum, and PET plastic recycling, several waste haulers, and more – as well as the governor’s own environmental agency and several solid waste districts supporting certain elements of the legislation – Governor Scott sided with Casella and the other industry opponents, vetoing H.158 on June 29th.
Now, we’re working to override the governor’s veto and finally pass this long-overdue legislation, but we need your help.