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Bottle redemption hassles are stopping consumers cold

Consumers say the reason they are redeeming fewer and fewer containers under the bottle deposit law is that the return process is so inconvenient.

More than 30 people contacted the Globe last week after the newspaper reported that consumers returned and recovered their nickel deposits on 65.7 percent of the 2.2 billion bottles and cans purchased in the fiscal year ending June 30, the lowest percentage since the bottle deposit law took effect in 1983.

Two readers supported raising the deposit to 10 cents and a handful of others said the nickel deposit was not sufficient motivation for them to return empties. But an overwhelming number of the people who contacted the Globe blamed the dropoff in returns on the shrinking number of full-service redemption centers and the inconvenience of using automated return machines at supermarkets and other retailers.

''The supermarkets don't want to handle returnables, so they've picked a system that automates it, in the process making it so inconvenient that the customers eventually decide not to use it," said Jeff Hecht of Auburndale.

Other readers reported similar frustration with reverse vending machines, which accept bottles and cans, crush them, and return the customer's deposit either in cash or in the form of a receipt that can be cashed inside the store.

The readers complained that the machines are slow to operate, poorly monitored, and often full or broken. They said it was annoying that some smaller retailers refuse to accept any empties and others will accept only those container brands they sell, a practice allowed under the law.

''The introduction of bottle and can return machines is responsible for the drop in returns, not the nickel value," said Gerry Ouellette of Plymouth. ''I know I will never stand in front of a machine and push bottles or cans into it even if the return value is 10 or more cents."

H.J. Glazer of Marblehead said the redemption rate would start rising if the state made it easier to return empty bottles and cans.

''If the Commonwealth wants the bottle bill to work, there needs to be easily accessible redemption centers that are required to take back any item that has a deposit label on it," Glazer said.

Full-fledged redemption centers are in the business of recycling bottles and cans and most accept any type of container a customer brings in. But the number of redemption centers in Massachusetts has been steadily declining, falling from a peak of 250 in 1995 to 94 today. In many communities, there are no redemption centers. Boston has six, according to a state list of registered redemption centers.

Jeff Fields, who owns two redemption centers on Cape Cod, said it's tough surviving on the 2.25-cent fee he receives for processing each container. He said the fee has increased only a quarter cent over the last 22 years, while other costs have increased dramatically over that time period.

Fields hasn't done it, but some redemption centers have improved their margins by giving customers 4 cents for their containers rather than the full nickel deposit.

Fields urged state officials to raise the handling fee to 3 cents and review its adequacy periodically. ''If being in the redemption business could be more attractive economically, there'd be more redemption centers," he said.

A spokeswoman for the state's Environmental Affairs office, which has the power to raise the fee, said she was researching the issue last week but then didn't return calls.

Wayne Campbell, who owns the Liquor Locker in Gloucester, said he would like to see the bottle deposit law abolished. ''It's filthy, unhealthy, and a very expensive way of recycling," he said.

Instead of using a deposit system, Campbell said, he would urge consumers to put their empties in the curbside recycling bin along with other materials that can be recycled.

''I think it would be a much more effective, cost efficient, and a more sanitary way of recycling," he said.

Campbell said he used to process returns at his store by hand, but it was too messy and took up too much space. He now uses reverse vending machines, which he said many of his customers don't like.

Tom Nield of Concord said there's little incentive to fix the bottle deposit system because the state pockets all the unredeemed deposits ($35 million last year) and retailers would just as soon see the law go away.

''The state doesn't want to make it easy for people to return the cans. They would rather keep the 5 percent tax," Nield said. ''The companies don't care how painful it is for the customers as long as it's easy for themselves."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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