AUGUSTA — The beverage industry is lobbying to eliminate the 5-cent deposit on larger containers, but critics contend the proposal is merely the latest attempt to undermine Maine’s nearly 40-year-old bottle bill.

A bill under consideration by lawmakers would phase out the bottle deposit on containers larger than 46 ounces, a class that includes 2-liter soda bottles and gallon jugs of water as well as the 15-cent deposit on larger wine and liquor bottles. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Poland Spring argue that these larger bottles do not typically contribute to the roadside litter problem and consume a disproportionate amount of bottle bill administrative costs and floor space at redemption centers.

Instead, the industry wants those bottles to flow into municipal recycling streams with the help of an estimated $1.7 million that will be funneled into a special state program by the industry over the next five years.

“Beverage containers of 46 ounces or greater are consumed in the home,” Newell Augur, an attorney for the Maine Beverage Association trade group, told lawmakers on Monday. “They are not roadside litter. They are easily recyclable as part of any recycling program that every community in the state of Maine has.”

Augur acknowledged the change would “absolutely” save beverage companies money – because they would no longer have to pay redemption centers a 3- to 4-cent handling fee – but added those savings would result in lower product costs.

But opponents of the bill, L.D. 683, countered that removing larger containers from the bottle bill will only place additional financial burdens on municipal recycling programs that struggle to break even. Additionally, redemption center operators predicted the change would eliminate anywhere from 6 to 12 percent of their profits at a time when many are facing additional costs because of the higher minimum wage.

“If we give up 46 ounces and above today, you can guarantee they’re coming back next year and they’re going to want 32 ounce and above,” said Melanie Zale, owner of Norm’s Redemption Center in Wilton. “And before you know it, we no longer have the bottle bill, which we have worked hard at and have proved to be very successful for darn near 40 years.”

According to the Container Recycling Institute, Maine collects more recyclable beverage containers per capita than any other state in the nation thanks, in large part, to the bottle bill adopted in 1978. In 2010, each Mainer turned in, on average, more than 700 recyclable bottles and cans compared to roughly 200 containers in states without a deposit.

Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, estimated that the bill would cost redemption centers $1.7 million annually in handling fees. She called the bill “a step backwards for recycling” in Maine, which currently ranks as the No. 1 state for beverage container recycling.

“The bill would increase landfilling, increase costs for municipalities and taxpayers, increase consumer confusion and increase the use of energy and the production of greenhouse gases,” Collins told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “In addition, the bill would financially result in a big giveaway for local and multinational beverage companies at the expense of Maine’s municipalities, Maine’s small businesses, the state of Maine itself and local charities.”

Mark Bergeron, director of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Land Resources, said the department opposed the bill because it would cause consumer confusion and force the DEP to divert resources away from efforts to improve the bottle bill. Additionally, larger containers are among the most expensive for municipalities to manage.

Representatives of the Maine Municipal Association, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and the Surfrider Foundation also testified in opposition to L.D. 683, which is sponsored by Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel.

The same legislative committee rejected a bill two years ago to remove 32-ounce and larger containers from the bottle bill, and the strong opposition on Monday suggests that Parry’s bill could be headed for a similar fate.

Meanwhile, the committee voted recently to expand the bottle bill by requiring retailers to collect a 15-cent deposit for the miniature liquor bottles – generally about 50 milliliters – known as “nips.” Nips are surging in popularity in Maine but they are also becoming a major litter problem along roadsides. Supporters of the bill – which is awaiting action on the House and Senate floors – hope that the imposition of a 15-cent deposit will encourage buyers to recycle the mini liquor bottles or prompt others to collect the litter.