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Bills Aim to Stem Tide of Miniature Bottles Littering Maine’s Roads

Susan Sharon
Like many miniature bottles of fireball, this one ended up on the side of a Maine road.

A little bottle is getting some big attention from the Maine Legislature.

“Nips” liquor bottles have moved from hotel minibars and airline service carts into convenience stores across Maine, and the discarded empties are piling up along the roadways. Lawmakers have proposed placing a deposit on the little containers.

The clink of bottles and aluminum cans reverberates throughout the cavernous sorting floor of the Bangor Redemption and Discount Beverage Center on Broadway recently. And while Alberta Surdick, the company’s general manager, is always anxious to increase business, she’s not crazy about the prospect of her crews hand-sorting empty 50-milliliter booze bottles.

In fact, she says she questions the sanity of anyone who would even consider such an idea.

“I think they’re nuts — plain, pure and simple. They’re nuts,” she says.

Surdick’s team of more than a dozen sorters can quickly count and organize an onslaught of returnables as if it were second nature. She says throwing nips bottles into the disposable stream would bog down the works and increase labor costs.

“These guys are really used to the fact that they know how many they’re picking up in each hand as they’re counting them, be it two or three in each hand and they’re counting by that,” she says. “These little bitty things? There’s no telling how many you’re going to grab in a handful. So they’ve really got to double their efforts as to what they’re looking at. Do we even take it? Do we have a distributor? Did it come from Maine?”

There are about a half-dozen bills seeking to expand Maine’s bottle bill to include not only nips bottles, but any bottle containing an alcoholic beverage that is smaller than 375 milliliters. Most of the sponsors, including Democratic state Rep. Betty Austin of Skowhegan, say they have been approached by constituents who are annoyed by the emerging roadside litter problem.

“Different people who live in different areas of my town have even spoken about the bottles being there and that they’ve picked up a lot of bottles,” she says. “In fact I was at a breakfast this morning and a woman from Durham said she finds them all the time, so apparently it’s all over our state.”

One of the returnable deposit expansion bills will be the focus of a public hearing Wednesday before the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Lance Harvell, a Farmington Republican and co-sponsor of LD 56, says there’s really only one way to get these recyclable containers off the road.

“If something’s worth something, when people are cleaning up the roads, they tend to either pick them up, or if it’s worth five cents they don’t throw ‘em out,” he says. “That’s the idea behind these things is that, so far with the way we’ve done this in the past with other bottles, that’s been helpful in keeping those particular ones that have the deposit off the side of the road.”

But among the opponents are redemption centers and liquor distributors.

Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public
Maine Public
Jeffrey Seney with two handfuls of 50 milliliter bottles of Fireball whiskey, the brand that has inspired several bills in favor of a deposit on small bottles of wine and other alcoholic beverages.

“First of all as you can imagine, applying a label to a very small bottle like that is both difficult and very labor intensive — that affects the costs,” says Jay Hibbard, vice president of government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Hibbard says Maine would be the only state besides Iowa to impose a returnable deposit on the small bottles, a process that would require the state’s liquor distributor to apply a deposit label to each bottle.

While there is a variety of potent beverages sold in 50 milliliter bottles being found throughout Maine, one brand — Fireball — accounts for far more sales than any other. At Burby & Bates beverage center in Orono, manager Jeff Seney says the cinnamon-flavored whiskey is a preferred item among his younger customers, and warrants its own custom freezer filled with 50 milliliter nips.

Seney says if Maine were to adopt a deposit on nips bottles, that could affect not just the demand but the supply as well.

“A lot of the big companies, they have a lot of pull and if it’s going to cost them on their bottom line to add something in, they might just say, ‘Hey, we’re just not going to ship to Maine,’” he says.

And that would be another way to address the problem of discarded nips bottles littering the state’s highways.