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Boston Globe
Dan Adams

Passed in 1982, the bottle bill might just be the simplest idea in the voluminous annals of Massachusetts environmental legislation: To reduce waste and litter, consumers pay a 5 cent deposit on certain bottled drinks that can be recouped by returning the container to a recycling center or store.

But for two longtime advocates, the fight over the law has spanned their careers, and it has been anything but simple.

Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, cut her teeth as a young activist on a successful lobbying campaign to override then-Governor Ed King’s 1981 veto of the original bottle bill. And just downstairs from MASSPIRG’s downtown office, Sierra Club legislative action committee chair Phil Sego has spent 13 years pleading with legislators to pass an update to the bill.

“It was very clear and in-your-face: The public wants this, Coca-Cola doesn’t, and we’ve got to overshout them,” Domenitz said, recalling the spirited 1980s effort. “We had so much fun. There was no computer. It was all about being out in the field.”

So why, more than 30 years later, are advocates still beating the bottle bill drum?

Cue the weary sighs of environmentalists across the state.

An update to the law — which proponents say is badly needed because of the advent of bottled water, juices, teas, and sports drinks not subject to the 5 cent deposit — has been pending in the Legislature since 2001. But in the face of opposition from bottling companies and retailers, who argue in part that the proposal is a tax on consumers and that widespread curbside recycling has obviated the deposit system, it has never even made it to the floor of the House for a vote.

“I never want to frighten people who aren’t experts from feeling confident they can act as citizens,” she said.

As a result, bottle bill advocates are taking the matter to voters as a November ballot question. And after years of lobbying behind the scenes and packing State House auditoriums with supporters, Domenitz is itching to get back out in the field and do open battle with the industry groups that oppose it. It’s a throwback to where she got her start.

“We’re going to have a blast,” she said.

While some advocates keep a tight focus on a single issue, Domenitz is a decided grazer. In an interview, she effortlessly pivots from the bottle bill to big pharma and everything in between, recalling facts and figures related to each.

“If we can bring something to the game, we’ll take it on,” she says, explaining that MASSPIRG focuses on issues that pit the public good against powerful interests.

Though she’d make a formidable debate opponent, Domenitz prefers to leave the nitty-gritty research to experts. She’s a grass-roots pragmatist and a self-described “New York schmoozer,” not a wonk.

“I never want to frighten people who aren’t experts from feeling confident they can act as citizens,” she said. “You need to do the research and have facts, but if you don’t have a base, membership, activists, and campaigners, you’re not going to get very far.”

Domenitz graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in American studies. She had planned to go to law school after a year off, but got bitten by the activism bug during the original bottle bill campaign and never looked back.

“Knowing there was solution to a problem that affects everyone’s lives, and understanding the reason it’s not being enacted by the people who have the power to do it because of big corporate interests — that animates me to this day,” she said.

For his part, Sego is a classic advocate. He convinced a friend to buy a smaller car, has his wife buy yogurt in bulk (less packaging), and scolds members of his gym for running the faucet while they shave. (“Some day, I’m gonna get beat up for that.”)

Yet he took a winding path to activism, spending years as a serial entrepreneur who founded and sold off several small businesses. One 1970s effort involved dismantling massive mainframe computers and recycling the precious metals inside.

But the work was unfulfilling. Financially secure and living a low-overhead lifestyle, Sego and his wife agreed he could afford to spend his time as a volunteer. After helping design an early Sierra Club website in the late 1990s, he stayed on with the group, becoming a lobbyist.

“Now, I’m really doing something, really changing things,” Sego said.

He honed his style under a mentor trained by Domenitz, and the two say they share a flexible negotiation style that emphasizes listening and adapting over brute-force partisanship. Sego calls most of the legislators he works with “wonderful people,” and even understands why legislators with bottling plants in their districts felt they could not support the bottle bill update.

“I can’t think of one person in the Legislature I would say has bad intentions,” he mused.

Sego’s environmentalism stems in part from summers spent at his father’s cabin in idyllic Millerton, N.Y. When he inherited the property, he put a conservation easement on the land, torpedoing its value but ensuring it would remain wild forever.

“I can’t save the entire northeastern forest, that’s silly. But I can save 20 acres,” he said.

Sego long ago told the Sierra Club not to bother offering him a paid gig. This way, he only works on projects that ignite his passion. “I can’t lobby on things I don’t believe in,” he said.

And while he shares Domenitz’s nervousness over a possible influx of corporate cash from big bottling and other companies opposed to the change, he is bullish about the ballot question.

“I am always an optimist, to the point where people have said I’m delusional,” he said. “I believe every bill I lobby for will pass. I believe every person I talk to, at some point, will say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ ”

One day, he might even get through to that one guy at the gym. “ ‘Just give me 10 minutes!’ ” Sego pantomimed.

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