Early bottle bill passed 50 years ago

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(Host) This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of Vermont’s passage of the nation’s first returnable bottle bill. The law was short lived, but as VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the legislation in 1953 was the first step leading to the passage of Vermont’s landmark returnable container law.

(Zind) In 1953 a powerful interest group held sway at the State House. Graham Newell was a freshman House Republican from Saint Johnsbury. Newell says the Vermont Farm Bureau was a formidable lobbying force.

(Newell) “Oh, of course, very! It was led by Keith Wallace and before him, his mentor. He’d been the most powerful man in Vermont through the 1940s.”

(Zind) In 1953, the leadership of the Farm Bureau passed from Arthur Packard to Waterbury farmer Keith Wallace. The bureau’s considerable power was based on agriculture’s role in the state’s economy and on the makeup of the Vermont House.

In 1953, each town had one representative. That gave rural towns as much power as Vermont’s cities. Farming concerns quickly became legislative concerns. And the number of discarded bottles along the roadside was a farm issue.

(Wallace) “It was an issue for the Farm Bureau and I can remember that dad talked about the issue.”

(Zind) Keith Wallace’s daughter, Rosina, says in the 1950s there were a lot more farms – and a lot more discarded bottles.

(Wallace) “The glass would become a problem because cows could get cut. Plus, it’s a hazard to the machinery.”

(Zind) The 1953 bottle bill targeted non-reusable beer bottles – outlawing them in Vermont. The legislation didn’t require the now familiar five-cent deposit and contained no disincentive for dumping bottles along the road. The law didn’t apply to soda, wine or liquor bottles, either.

Vermont’s growing tourist industry lined up with the farmers. Grocers and the beer industry opposed the legislation. State Archivist Gregory Sanford says there were other forces at work. They saw the bill as a way to curb alcohol use.

(Sanford) “There’s still lingering in Vermont in 1953 a relatively strong temperance movement. Indeed, in 1953 there was a House and a Senate Temperance Committee and that was the committee that considered the returnable bottle bill.”

(Zind) The bill was written to expire in two years and it wasn’t renewed. Eighteen years would pass before the next successful attempt to pass a bottle bill.

By then many more Vermonters had become concerned about trash along the roadsides. Green Up Day was established in 1970 and, a year later, the Legislature adopted the beverage container law.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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