Mary Lou Nicholson reached out with a grabber tool and picked up yet another plastic water bottle littering the beach at Fort Phoenix State Reservation in Fairhaven.

Nicholson organized her first beach cleanup in 2011 and founded a nonprofit called Be the Solution to Pollution. She estimated she has done nearly 140 cleanup events, collecting a cumulative 27,000 pounds of trash. A lot of that is plastic water bottles, she says, and the tiny alcohol bottles called “nips.”

“It’s mostly non-carbonated beverages,” she said. “And it drives me crazy because we wouldn’t see so many of these if we just update the bottle bill and cover these things.”

The “bottle bill,” the informal name for the law behind Massachusetts’ deposit system, was enacted in 1983 and applies only to containers of carbonated drinks. Consumers pay a 5-cent deposit for each bottle or can, and — if they return the used container — they get that money back at their local store or redemption center.

From many environmentalists’ point of view, it takes out a middleman — recycling centers — and paves the way for clean recyclables to be turned into new bottles more effectively.

And as recycling costs are rising for cities and towns, they say there’s a new urgency to get more bottles out of the waste stream.

A woman walks along the beach with a grabber and a plastic bag for litter she collects.
Mary Lou Nicholson picks up nips and other plastic trash at Fort Phoenix State Reservation in Fairhaven, Mass.
Craig LeMoult GBH News

But environmentalists like Nicholson and some state lawmakers say it's long overdue to make two major changes to Massachusetts’ bottle bill. The first would be expanding what kinds of containers are included.

“Not only are we drinking a lot more beverages on-the-go than we were in the past, but we also are drinking a huge variety of beverages across the board,” said Kirstie Pecci of the Massachusetts-based advocacy group Just Zero. “So, you know, there was no kombucha when we were kids, right? People didn’t buy bottled water in the United States when we were kids.”

The new bottle bill would require a deposit on bottles of water, iced tea and, yes, kombucha. It would also cover nips and even wine bottles.

Nicholson said, if all that trash had a value, she wouldn’t see nearly as much of it lining the beaches.

“It drives me crazy because we wouldn’t see so many of these if we just update the bottle bill and cover these things.”
Mary Lou Nicholson, founder of Be the Solution to Pollution, on littered bottles

The second big change proposed in the new bottle bill would increase the deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents. Proponents say a higher value deposit would incentivize more people to return their bottles for redemption.

Connecticut just increased its deposit to 10 cents this month. And in Maine, where the deposit is already 10 cents, there’s a 78% redemption rate.

In Massachusetts, though, that figure is just 38%.

“Unfortunately, Massachusetts ranks dead last not only in the country, but dead last in the world in terms of redemption rate for its container deposit law,” said Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute. “It’s still better by far than not having a bottle bill. But 38% is less than half of what we expect.”

On a recent trash day in Arlington, the town’s recycling coordinator, Charlotte Milan, opened up a random recycling bin on a residential street.

“Here we go,” she said, poking around inside. “Here’s a craft brewing can. ... Yep. A bunch of beer bottles. A bunch of beer cans.”

Instead of redeeming bottles and cans, many people forgo the 5 cents and just throw them in their recycling bins, Milan said. And while beverage companies pay for the redemption system, cities and towns pick up the cost for curbside recycling.

“So, to the degree to which you are taking those bottles to a redemption center, you’re pushing that cost back on the bottlers and the beverage industries,” Milan said.

In the past, towns like Arlington didn’t have to pay for curbside recycling because the expense was offset by the value of the material collected. But the value of recycled material has dropped substantially over the last five years, and starting next year, Arlington will have to pay a processing fee for its recycling.

“Now we’re looking at $100 to $120 a ton,” Milan said. “We in Arlington recycle 5,000 tons per year, about. So that’s a significant jump in what our costs are going to be.”

“Cities and towns, by and large, would be very supportive of an expanded bottle bill,” said Adam Chapdelaine, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “It would take product out of the waste stream, reduce cost, likely reduce litter, whether on the side of roadways or parks, [and] make it easier to be able to manage public spaces. So overall, I think this is a financial win, it’s an operational win, and would provide great benefit to cities and towns if passed.”

Waste management companies see the proposed expansion of the bottle bill differently.

A big yellow CAT-branded machine pushes through massive piles of recyclables.
A front loader lifts piles of recyclable material at the Casella Waste Systems facility in Charlestown.
Craig LeMoult GBH News

In Charlestown, Jeff Weld of Casella Waste Systems recently looked on as huge front loaders scooped up piles of recyclable plastic, glass, metal and paper.

“Every day at this facility, we take in about anywhere from 650 to 750 tons of recyclables,” he said. “They’re sorted by category, they’re processed, baled and then they’re sold to market to be put to higher and better use than they normally would be if they were put into the waste stream.”

Companies like Casella make money based on the weight of material they accept, and then again when they sell the recyclable material. So, diverting bottles from recycling bins to redemption centers would hit their bottom line twice.

“Rather than looking for solutions at the end of the waste stream, maybe we should look for solutions at the beginning of the waste stream.”
Jeff Weld, Casella Waste Systems

Since Casella is already recycling those bottles, Weld questioned the need to expand the redemption system and raise the bottle deposit.

“When you think about expanding a bottle bill, you're really running a redundant system,” Weld said. “You're taking some of that high-value material out of the existing recycling stream, putting it back on the consumer to do that sorting on their own, and then making it a little bit less convenient for them to get their products into the recycling stream — at an additional cost.”

Advocates for an expanded bottle bill say there are limits to what recycling facilities like Casella’s can do, and that today’s system isn’t good enough.

The bottles processed there can’t be turned into new bottles like they can in a redemption system.

Because the bottles and cans returned at redemption centers are already presorted by the consumer, experts say they aren’t contaminated by things like bleach bottles that aren't food grade, or other mixed-in recyclable materials like bits of broken glass.

Workers in bright yellow outfits go through piles of plastic waste on a conveyor belt.
Workers sort through recyclable plastic bottles at the Casella Waste Systems facility in Charlestown.
Craig LeMoult GBH News

As for the issue of reducing litter, Weld says the time to address that problem is not at the recycling stage.

“Rather than looking for solutions at the end of the waste stream, maybe we should look for solutions at the beginning of the waste stream,” Weld said. “Maybe that looks like educating on, you know, not littering to begin with.”

Waste companies have successfully lobbied against changes in the past, including defeating a 2014 ballot measure that would have dramatically expanded what kinds of bottles are covered. But the sponsors of the current legislation believe this time will be different.

For one thing, said state Sen. Cynthia Creem, plastic production is now better understood to be a climate change issue.

“Producing plastic bottles requires burning fossil fuels,” Creem said. “But if we reuse them and recycle the plastic with an effective program, the bottle deposit system, we can reduce the need for new containers and the emissions they generate.”

Creem said the issue of single-use plastics is clearly on the radar of Gov. Maura Healey, given her order in September that bans state agencies from purchasing single-use plastic water bottles.

The expanded bottle bill is currently under consideration by the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which faces a Feb. 7 deadline to move the legislation forward.

“I’ve had lots of really good conversations with leadership on my side,” said state Rep. Marjorie Decker, the bill’s House sponsor. “And I think that the obstacles that existed during that referendum ... a decade ago, they’re not there any longer. People actually understand the science, the data. And the people certainly want to see this happening.”