I-Team Investigates: Who's cashing in on unclaimed bottle deposits?

Consumers pay a deposit every time they buy a bottle or can in Maine, but what where does that nickel go if they don't redeem it?

AUGUSTA (WGME) -- Consumers pay a deposit every time they buy a bottle or can in Maine, but what where does that nickel go if they don't redeem it?

Maine's Bottle Bill is aimed at keeping litter off the streets and that five or 15 cent deposit is an incentive.

"It started out we were saving for a dinner at Hugo's in Portland," said Diane Clark, of Peak's Island.

"I average about 100 to 110 dollars a month," said Connie Hood of South Portland.

These Mainers can't imagine why others don't reclaim their deposits.

"They're missing out on money," said Hood.

So where does that money go?

"It depends, there's a couple different places," said Carole Cifrino, who runs the program for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Cifrino said when a container is redeemed, at some point they have to figure out who is responsible for that container.

She said the abandoned deposits ultimately go back to the manufacturers or distributors, whoever initiated the deposit.

Some are required to report the amount to the state annually. They get to keep half and the other half goes to the State of Maine's general fund. In 2016, Maine Revenue Services said it was more than $1.6 million.

But under the law, other distributors get to pocket all of that extra change.

Cifrino said they have no idea how much those companies are walking away with. "There's no reporting required by those companies, so we have no idea," she said.

Those companies are in commingling agreements, which account for two thirds of the beverage industry, according to a report by the Maine Department of Agriculture. It means distributors agree their containers can be combined

"For example, lets see we got Budweiser and Rolling Rock," said Peter Welch, who owns the GAIA Forest Ave. Redemption Center in Portland. "These are two different distributors. One is Nappi Distributors here in Greater Portland, Gorham and Budweiser from National Distributors here in South Portland. In the olden days, these would go back separately. In the current days, they can go back together on the same truck."

Another example, Welch said, is instead of separating every Pepsi and Coke can, the two can be tossed in together before being trucked away.

"I save on invoicing, they save on trucking," said Welch, reiterating that commingling is about efficiency.

"It helps very much being able to commingle," said Sherri Roehrig, who owns Fast Cash Redemption in Brunswick.

Even with commingling, her redemption center still has as many as 180 different sorting bins, and that number only seems to grow.

"New products come out weekly," she said. "We get new charts and add more boxes."

Redemption centers get paid by the distributors. They receive the original five cent deposit for each container, plus a handling fee. The convenience of commingling comes at a cost.

"They do get paid a little less, 3.5 cents for containers commingled, but they get paid four cents for each container they manage thats not commingled," Cifrino said.

Cifrino added lawmakers may be asked to expand commingling.

"The law is written a certain way that pretty much as many commingling agreements as there can be, exist. But what we want to look at is how much interest is there in doing more commingling?" Cifrino said.

But more commingling means even less of the unclaimed deposits will go back to the state.

"Yes, I mean, the state will lose money on that, but will the bigger purpose of the law be better affected? Well, thats the trade," said Welch.

Welch said, first thing first, the state needs to keep better data. A 2006 report to the legislature was unable to determine how many containers went un-returned.

"I think they should be keeping track," said Welch. "That's a lot of money."

He would like to see some of the unclaimed funds go toward advancing technology to make the process even more efficient, an idea he believes would make the bottle bill even better.

"I think it's a great piece of legislation. It works," said Welch. "The public loves it."

Right now, lawmakers are debating whether to add a deposit on 50 milliliter bottles, also known as Nips.

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