PORTLAND, Maine — A memorable "Seinfeld" episode features Kramer and Newman taking thousands of cans and bottles to Michigan so they can get a nickel more per container than they would in New York, but beverage distributors say there's nothing funny when it happens for real.
In Maine, which has a more expansive bottle-redemption law than neighboring states, three people have been accused of illegally cashing in more than 100,000 out-of-state bottles and cans for deposits, the first time criminal charges have been filed in the state over bottle-refund fraud, a prosecutor said.
A couple that runs a Maine redemption center and a Massachusetts man were indicted this week, accused of redeeming beverage containers in Maine that were bought in other states.
Thomas and Megan Woodard, who run Green Bee Redemption in Kittery, face the more serious charge of allegedly passing off more than 100,000 out-of-state containers — with a value of more than $10,000 — as if they had been purchased in Maine.
That's just the tip of the iceberg.
An estimated 90 million cans and bottles are fraudulently cashed in each year in Maine, costing beverage distributors $8 million to $10 million, said Newell Augur, executive director of the Maine Beverage Association.
People from other states — especially New Hampshire, which has no "bottle law" — routinely redeem loads of cans and bottles in Maine, Augur said. Redemption centers pay customers 5-cent refunds on most beverage containers and 15 cents for wine and liquor bottles. The centers, in turn, get that money back from distributors, plus a 3 1/2- or 4-cent handling fee per container.
Officials estimate that up to 1 billion beverage containers are sold in Maine each year. Containers sold in other states, however, carry the Maine deposit stamp because it's not cost-effective to change labeling for each state.