May 9, 2006
Fix the Bottle Bill
The "Bottle Bill" became state law in 1982, and it was hailed everywhere, including on this page, as a long-overdue step toward a cleaner environment.
The law is elegantly ingenious. It imposes a nickel deposit on soda and beer cans and bottles so that people will have an incentive to turn them in for recycling. Even if the person who actually buys and drinks the beverage doesn't bother to redeem the container for the deposit and simply tosses it into a garbage can or litter basket, there are many people who do collect these cans and bottles and turn them in. (One Staten Island man told us he could make several hundred dollars in a week.)
The net result of this mini-economy created by the Bottle Bill?
Many more deposit bottles and cans now find their way to recycling centers than would if there were no deposit. In some places around the state, recycling rates for soda and beer bottles approach 95 percent because of the law. In fact, billions of bottles and cans have been recycled -- more than 80 billion in this state alone since the Bottle Bill took effect in 2003.
That means those containers are not going into the regular waste stream to fill landfills and adding to municipalities' garbage disposal costs. Nor are they being burned in incinerators where they increase pollution.
The New York Public Interest Research Group estimates that diversion has redirected 5.2 million tons from the waste stream and saved state taxpayers some $300 million over the last 23 years.
The Bottle Bill has also led to the creation of more than 5,000 regular private-sector jobs in the recycling industry, in addition to all those people around the state who make money turning in large quantities of deposit containers for cash.
And that means less pollution and less litter and broken glass on the streets and in parks resulting in fewer injuries and less property damage. It also means that the metal, glass and plastic in these containers can be recycled to manufacture new cans and bottles
In sum, the Bottle Bill has been good for the environment, good for the economy, good for taxpayers and good for communities -- a winner on all counts.
As dramatically effective as it's been, however, the 1982 Bottle Bill is logically flawed. That's because the legislation was drafted, after much haggling, to include only cans and bottles containing carbonated beverages.
The containers for non-carbonated drinks, such as water, fruit juice, iced tea, sports drinks and others, were deliberately excluded. And sales of those kinds of beverages have skyrocketed in the last two decades as people have switched from soda to healthier drinks. Non-carbonated drinks now account for more than 22 percent of overall beverage sales.
The proliferation of these non-redeemable drink containers has led to an increase in all the problems with pollution, litter, trash disposal and increased costs the Bottle Bill was intended to reduce. These containers represent just 22 percent of the beverages sold statewide, but they account for 62 percent of the litter found on the state's shorelines, for example. People simply have no incentive to recycle them and no incentive to pick them up to return them.
Back in 1982, lawmakers perhaps didn't envision the boom in non-carbonated drinks. So, after heavy lobbying by the beverage industry, they caved in to industry demands to exempt these drinks from the law.
They also caved in to the industry by writing the law so that the industry has been able to keep unclaimed deposits -- an amount that's now estimated to be nearly $180 million a year and more than $1.2 million since the law took effect. The industry says it has to have this money to offset the costs of recycling beer and soda bottles and cans. Keep in mind, however, that according to the Container Reycling Institute, the industry has gotten hundreds of millions in revenues from selling materials from collected cans and bottles to recycling companies.
For years now, legislation to amend the Bottle Bill to close these gaping loopholes has been submitted in the state legislature, but each time, the effort has met with failure.
Now, the Bigger Better Bottle Bill is being debated in the state Capitol again.
The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli of Nassau County and Sen. Kenneth LaValle of Suffolk County, would expand the original Bottle Bill to impose the 5-cents deposit on containers for bottled water, fruit juice, sports drinks and others, thereby insuring that a much higher percentage of them are recycled.
It would also require the beverage industry to return unclaimed deposits to the state's Environmental Protection Fund to help underwrite recycling and waste-prevention programs in cities and towns across the state.
Since the original Bottle Bill has proven to be of such benefit, even with its flaws, expanding it to close the loopholes and make it more effective should be a no-brainer for lawmakers.
Unfortunately, no-brainers are all too often a heavy lift in Albany, where too many legislators let lobbyists do their thinking for them.
The primary obstruction has always been in the state Senate, where Emperor -- er, Majority Leader -- Joseph Bruno has decreed, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the original Bottle Bill is a waste and that expanding it would be senseless.
But now, there seems to be wavering as well in the Assembly, which has always been the more environmentally aware chamber of the legislature. It seems the industry lobbyists have done an effective job of eroding support for the bill.
So lawmakers parrot bogus claims that the refundable 5-cents deposit on beverage containers is somehow a "tax"; that the Bottle Bill recycling incentive that has created thousands of jobs and saved municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars hurts the economy; that an expanded Bottle Bill is unnecessary since most places have their own recycling programs -- a claim that is contradicted by all the empty non-carbonated beverage containers thrown into the trash or on the street.
The Assembly has been stalling on a vote on the Bigger Better Bottle Bill, probably an indication that the Assembly leadership has doubts about it, thanks to intense industry pressure.
If it's a good idea to divert millions of soda and beer cans and bottles from the waste stream so they will be recycled, why is it not a good idea to expand the law so that up to 2.6 million non-carbonated drink containers would also be recycled? What's the difference? The opposition's arguments make no sense.
The Bottle Bill has been an enormous success, despite the doom-and-gloom predictions from industry propagandists who opposed it 24 years ago. The industry survived; mom-and-pop stores survived, consumers survived and the environment is better for it.
Lawmakers should see through the lobbyists' hype this time around and understand that expanding the Bottle Bill to include most of the beverage containers people use today would make it an even more effective tool to reduce trash-disposal costs and protect the environment.
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