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Baltimore-area lawmakers propose bottle fee

A trio of Baltimore-area lawmakers on Monday unveiled a plan to charge a 5-cent refundable fee on bottles and cans in an effort to increase recycling in Maryland.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House of Delegates’ Environmental Matters Committee, said about 4 billion glass and plastic drink containers are sold in the state each year and put the current recycling rate at 22 percent.

She said the charge — which she described as a deposit rather than a fee or tax — could raise the rate to 75 percent and generate an extra $50 million to $200 million for the state each year.

Similar bills have been introduced in the General Assembly for years, with no success. Del. John A. Olszewski, D-Baltimore County, said this bill was different because of the deposit structure.

“This one isn’t a tax,” Olszewski said. “It’s a different way of doing things.”

McIntosh said the 5-cent deposit was not a tax because it would be refunded if consumers returned their empty bottles and cans to a redemption center, which could be established by private businesses or by local jurisdictions.

“We as a country have to stop being disposable,” said McIntosh, standing above the frequently bottle-strewn waterway between the Pier Six Concert Pavilion and Harbor East in Baltimore.

The bill is being backed by the Glass Packing Institute, the Container Recycling Institute and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Will Baker, president of the foundation, said the legislation could help reduce pollution in the Inner Harbor and ultimately the bay.

Recycling Institute President Susan Collins struck a more dollars-and-cents tone: “In study after study, financial incentives have been shown to produce the most dramatic increases in recycling rates,” she said.

Similar bills have been tough sells in part thanks to the arguments of beverage industry lobbyists in Annapolis. Olszewski said their voice had been powerful in previous sessions, but he said he felt the momentum was moving in the opposite direction this year.

But Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, called the proposal “an ill-conceived, outdated and ineffective approach to encourage recycling.” Few states run deposit programs, instead choosing to focus on curbside, single-stream recycling systems that allow cardboard, glass and plastic to all go in the same container. Many jurisdictions in Maryland — including Baltimore — have such a system in place.

Valentino said Delaware abandoned its deposit program in 2010 because of its unpopularity and the rise of single-stream recycling. The deposit amounted to a tax that would “add to the cost of virtually all beverage containers sold in Maryland.”

“The scheme makes absolutely no sense when most Marylanders have the convenience of single-stream curbside recycling,” she said. “There are better ways to increase recycling and reduce litter than this.”

McIntosh predicted the beverage association’s opposition, but stressed that the organization’s members don’t have to be involved in the redemption process if they don’t want to be.

“The retailers, if they don’t want to play, they don’t have to play,” McIntosh said.

Valentino said the retailers would not play, a point seconded by Walt Clocker, owner of Angel’s Food Mart in Pasadena. Clocker, who is also president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said there would be too many administrative costs associated with becoming a redemption center for shops to do so.

Without enough convenient redemption centers, he said, the deposit becomes a tax.

“By having twin systems, there is going to be an added cost that’s going to be passed along,” Clocker said. “If the goal really is to cut down on trash and things like that, I think there’s probably better ways to do it. If their goal is to raise money, why don’t they come out and say that?”

Clocker said other options to reduce trash include instituting littering fines or promoting recycling at the community level. He stressed that retailers weren’t opposed to cutting down on trash — they just don’t agree with charging their customers extra coins per drink to do it.

“Our industry is open to certain fees that make sense,” he said. “We’ve been in discussions about various bag taxes. And we’re definitely open to the possibilities of those.”

Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore, also attended Monday’s announcement. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, is the bill’s Senate sponsor.