Bottle bill proponents, opponents watch Northeast

Litter-strewn lots, roadways, parks, and beaches may soon become a thing of the past - at least throughout much of the Northeast.

* Mandatory nickle or dime deposits on beer and soft-drink containers go into effect in mid-January in Delaware and Massachusetts.

* A similar bottle law for New York state, enacted late last spring, takes effect next July 1.

* Lawmakers in several other states, including New Hampshire and Rhode Island , the only places in New England without such measures on the books, will be considering beverage deposit legislation at their 1983 sessions.

While prospects for these latter proposals are uncertain, proponents appear increasingly optimistic. They are particularly encouraged by what they view as strong citizen support in the region for ''bottle laws,'' including the recent 3 -to-2 vote by which a proposed repeal of the Massachusetts statute was rejected.

Environmentalists and others pushing to rid the region, if not the nation, of nonreturnable glass, metal, and plastic beer and soft-drink containers view the next few months as crucial to their cause. Of particular concern is how smoothly the transition from throw-away containers to deposit bottles and cans will come in Massachusetts, where bottlers and retailers face a Jan. 15 compliance deadline.

Most store owners and beverage distributors had counted on the bottle law being wiped out, and thus have done little or nothing to prepare for the new setup since the measure passed a year ago. Now with less than two months to go, they are pleading, apparently unsuccessfully, for more time.

In contrast, merchants and bottlers in Delaware have acted to head off confusion when that state's new deposit law takes effect on Jan. 15. Instead of waiting until the last minute, soft-drink bottlers and store owners began phasing in deposit containers in mid-November, notes Pat Todd of the Delaware League of Women Voters and leader of Coalition Against Nonreturnables.

Unlike Massachusetts, New York, and other states which have enacted such measures (Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont), only glass bottles and steel cans are covered by the Delaware statute - at least initially.

The law, originally passed in 1978, was delayed in implementation. A clause (later deleted) deferred any action until similar measures were on the books in neighboring Maryland and Pennsylvania. The law was watered down last June to exempt aluminum cans until January 1984.

Foes of the Delaware bottle law are expected to move during the coming weeks to gain either a further extension or perhaps an outright repeal of the statute, Mrs. Todd warns.

Boosters of the Massachusetts deposit measure concede there may be some problems during the transition from nonreturnable to returnable containers. Some are worried that retailers and bottlers may take advantage of the situation to increase beer and soft-drink costs more than justified for handling and storing empties.

Bottle law opponents, elated over the rejection of such proposals on Nov. 2 ballots in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington, are counting heavily on ''confusion and consumer discontent'' in both Massachusetts and New York to discourage future deposit measures in other states.

''There is bound to be chaos when they put the law into effect in New York City,'' forecasts Roger Bernstein of the Glass Packaging Institute, based in Washington, D.C. ''Many small corner stores simply don't have the space to store and sort the bottles,'' he warns.

The New York measure's supporters, however, are anything but pessimistic.

''No doubt there will be some problems at first, but I am sure everything will work out,'' says attorney Henry Neale Jr., leader of the statewide coalition which spearheaded the drive for the statute's passage.

Rhode Island bottle law advocates, buoyed by strong voter support for such a measure in 24 of the 25 cities and towns where the question was on the fall ballot, are carefully charting a new legislative push.

''This is something the people want,'' says Richard Abedon, a leader of the statewide coalition pursuing mandatory deposits on beer and soft-drink containers. Much will depend, he says, ''on whether Gov. (J. Joseph) Garrahy, who has endorsed the idea, gets behind the effort.''

In New Hampshire, gubernatorial backing for the recently-filed bottle bill appears remote because Republican Governor-elect John Sununu came out against such a measure during his campaign.

But Democratic state Rep. Pattie Blanchette Newmarket, the legislation's chief sponsor, contends it is not a lost cause. More than 100 of her colleagues in the 400-seat lower legislative chamber are on the bandwagon, she says.

She and other bottle-law activists are concerned that New Hampshire, the only state in the region without a deposit measure, could become the dumping ground of nonreturnable beverage bottles and cans discarded not only by residents but also by out-of-state visitors.

Besides New Hampshire and Rhode Island, several other states can be expected to have major campaigns to enact beverage container deposit laws at 1983 legislative sessions. These include Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Virginia, says Elizabeth Davenport of Environmental Action, a national ecology lobbying organization.

While disappointed by the recent defeat of proposed bottle laws in the four Western states, she notes that in each instance supporters were ''heavily outspent by the opposition.''

Beverage container manufacturers, bottlers, wholesalers, and retailers of beer and soft drinks, who bankrolled the anti-deposit campaign, contend their success ''was a victory for the people,'' helping save jobs and protecting lower costs. They favor a so-called litter tax, with proceeds earmarked for recycling centers and cleanup campaigns.

Deposit activists maintain that this approach, which has been tried in several states including Washington and Colorado, ''is largely ineffective.''

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