Brewing Money

March 9, 2003

By Michael Jessen

It's the classic story of David and Goliath. Small, local bottle depots trying to force mammoth breweries to pay for a service they have been getting for free for five years.

The members of the non-profit BC Bottle Depot Association (www.bcbda.com) are doing battle with Molson (www.molson.com) and Labatt (www.labatt.com) over a deal signed in 1998 with the previous provincial government. That arrangement exempted the brewing giants from participating with bottle depot companies in a deposit/refund system that keeps millions of beverage containers out of local landfills.

Depot operating costs in BC are currently recovered from producers of non-alcoholic beverages (pop, water, juice, etc.) and wine, spirits and imported beer makers. Each of the drink manufacturers pay a per unit fee to the depots -- in addition to refunding the deposit paid by the depot to their customer. These fees help pay for rent, light, and labour required to process these containers.

It's a different story, however, for domestic beer and ciders in refillable bottles and beer in aluminum cans. These products are part of the Brewers Distributors Ltd. (a company owned by Molson and Labatt) collection system. BDL pays no handling fees to the depots, forcing the depots to give their customers less than the full deposit back in order to recover handling and transportation costs.

Since BC government liquor stores refund the full deposit to its customers without receiving a handling fee from BDL, your tax dollars are subsidizing Canada's big beer brewers. A collection service free to the breweries, but at an estimated annual cost of about $2.5 million annually to BC's government liquor stores, according to Vancouver Sun reporter Jim Beatty in his "Capital Insider" report of March 6.

Much more says BCBDA executive director Brenda Southam. She estimates it's a system that has allowed brewers to milk more than $12 million from BC taxpayers a year.

"We know it costs bottle depots three cents a unit in order to pay employees a minimum wage," Southam said in an interview. By multiplying the wages and benefits paid to government liquor store workers times the number of containers they process, Southam says the real annual cost to taxpayers is approximately $12.9 million.

In addition, the BCBDA estimates consumers have not received $5.6 million in deposit refunds and claims this money is added profit for the major breweries in BC.

While Vancouver Sun reporter Beatty writes there are signs the BC government may move to change this inequity by September, the BCBDA has launched a highly organized campaign to influence industry giants Molson and Labatt to pay handling fees to the depots. During the month of March, the association is conducting a petition drive at all depots and will air a television commercial for two weeks in April.

You can also voice your opinion on the BCBDA web site www.mydepot.ca or by telephoning 1-877-99-DEPOT. An information flyer is also being distributed at all depots.

"It is of great importance that we get the public educated as to why we do not pay a full refund for beer and get them involved in discussing this issue with other people," says Southam. "Consumers have told us that they want to be able to bring all of their containers to one place and they want to receive a full refund."

Statistics would seem to back up her claim. In spite of the fact bottle depots don't refund the full deposit on domestic beer bottles and cans, Southam says 40% of the containers are coming back through bottle depots.

On the local scene, the Nelson Jr. Leafs' Bottle Depot (www.discovernelson.com/bottledepot/) has been providing beverage container recycling services to the Nelson area since 1982. Net profits from the depot support the city's Kootenay International Junior Hockey League team. The depot is a member of both the BCBDA and an authorized Encorp Pacific Canada (www.encorp.ca) depot.

The Nelson depot accepts and refunds full deposit on literally hundreds of beverage containers including glass and plastic bottles, aluminum pop cans, juice tins, bag-in-a-box and pouch containers, and plastic jugs. The Jr. Leafs' Depot also accepts and refunds full deposit on all the wine, spirits, and imported beer and cooler containers, since they fall under the Encorp Pacific management system.

But as the depot's web site explains: "Of course the Jr. Leafs' Bottle Depot also accepts domestic refillable glass beer bottles and aluminum beer cans that fall under the stewardship of Brewers Distributors Ltd., which is a company owned by Molson and Labatt Breweries. It is important to understand that the Jr. Leafs' Bottle Depot cannot pay full refund on BDL products as BDL does not yet pay a handling fee for the containers we collect on their behalf."

Considering that by all accounts Encorp Pacific is doing a credible job (having retrieved a total of 618.1 million containers for the first eleven months of 2002 a 9% increase from the same period in 2001), why do we need two different entities collecting, processing, and refunding deposits on containers?

It's time for Molson and Labatt to stop brewing money at the expense of taxpayers and bottle depot operators. It's time for them to concentrate on what they do best -- brew beer.

GREEN TIPS - When bringing items to your local refund bottle depot:

 Remove caps on glass, and plastic and leave labels on.  Leave the tab on aluminum cans.  Leave labels on metal cans.  Bag in Box - leave the bag in the box.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He has also worked at the Nelson Leafs' Depot since August 2002. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by email at Michael@zerowaste.ca. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.


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