PORTLAND, Maine — For Peter Welch in Portland, running a redemption center is by no means a new feat.
He has been operating one in the general vicinity of his current location—GAIA Forest Avenue Redemption Center—since 1981. The loud sound of bottles bumping and cans crushing has stayed the same over all the years; but he said the job has changed in many ways.
"It's a really interesting world of business to be in. It’s complicated. It’s difficult," Welch said.
It has become even more complicated and difficult since inflation took hold a couple of years ago. Welch said operating costs have skyrocketed, with their electricity and oil bills doubling. While other businesses have adjusted by raising the cost of goods, Welch said he and his fellow redemption center managers aren't as lucky.
"Unlike other businesses, we just can’t raise our price. We are at the whim of the [Maine] Legislature," Welch said.
The "Bottle Bill" program in Maine began decades ago. Essentially, consumers can bring bottles and cans to their local redemption center, and they'll receive a nickel (or three nickels, depending on the container type) per each container they return.
The way redemption centers get compensated is through something called a "handling fee," paid to them by beverage manufacturers. That fee is set by the Maine Legislature. Since redemption centers can't adjust it, Welch said they've been having a hard time keeping up with inflation.
"There are about 250 redemption centers in the state, but at the moment many are struggling," Welch said. "We had over 300. We lost 50 or 60 in the last year and a half."
That's why Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, has introduced emergency bill LD 134, "An Act to Increase the Handling Fee for Beverage Containers Reimbursed to Dealers and Redemption Centers."
If passed and signed into law, it would raise the handling fee for beverage manufacturers to pay redemption centers from 4.5 cents per container to six cents per container by September.
"The last time [the handling fee] was increased was in 2019. Since then, I think everybody can really feel that inflation has just taken a hit on everything," Sarah Nichols, the sustainable Maine director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said. That increase involved half of a cent in May of 2019 and another half of a cent on Jan. 1, 2020.
Nichols has been a big advocate for LD 134, which received a unanimous "ought to pass as amended" vote from the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. She called this issue an "emergency."
"We need to get additional funds to these redemption centers right away, or we’re going to see more and more close," Nichols said.
Other stakeholders, like Newell Augur with the Maine Beverage Association, said they're more interested in seeing longer-term solutions to the problem. Augur said he worked on legislation to update Maine's "Bottle Bill," but it hasn't been printed yet.
"It was our hope that any change would include a discussion of reform," Augur said. "I mean, we’ve got a program that is buried in the 20th century — maybe even the 19th century from the technology standpoint."
Augur said he'd like to see bottles and cans in Maine sorted by material (i.e. aluminum, glass, and plastic) instead of by brands that come into the state. He said that change, though, would take an investment of money and time by local distributors, which is one reason why he said he doesn't think another hike in handling fees right now in a good idea.
"We go through this dance every three or four years, and it seems unfortunate that each time the solution is just to throw more money at the problem," Augur said, later adding, "It’s going to hurt a lot of small businesses, local distributors. Every craft brewery in the state of Maine is going to get hit. That cost gets passed on to all the Maine consumers."
Still, Nichols said she doesn't believe the impact would be that devastating.
"The handling fee we are proposing goes up a penny [May 1] and then another half-penny in September," Nichols said. "Are you really going to be deterred from buying that beverage if it’s a penny or a penny-and-a-half more?"
Nichols said she is also working on a "Bottle Bill" modernization bill with Rep. Allison Hepler. It's different than the one Augur mentioned, but Nichols said both are expected to be printed within the next week or two.
LD 134 is an emergency bill, so it needs a two-thirds majority vote to become law. Nichols said an initial vote in the Senate is expected on Thursday.