September 2, 2006
Improve state bottle returns
For three years the "Bigger Better Bottle Bill" has floundered in Albany, as mundane concerns and lobbying interests have taken precedence over common sense.
The bill passed the state Assembly in 2005 and this year, but has yet to make it through the Senate. There is no good reason for further delays.
The bill would update New York's successful but antiquated bottle deposit law. Enacted in 1982, the Returnable Container Act put a 5-cent deposit on all plastic, glass and metal bottles and cans for carbonated drinks, such as soda and beer.
The original law has done profound good in beautifying the state and in promoting recycling. Over the years, 90 billion containers have been redeemed for deposits. Many of those would have otherwise ended up on the side of the road; many more would simply have been thrown away. Instead, five million tons of materials have been recycled due to the law.
The deposits, though small, create a tangible incentive for consumers to recycle, unlike curbside recycling programs, which rely on people recycling out of conscience. Often that's not enough motivation.
The existing law is showing its age, however. Many popular drinks today do not bear deposits because they hardly existed two decades ago. The new bill would apply deposits on bottled water, tea, juice and sports drinks, together comprising one in five of all drinks sold in New York. Charging a deposit on these products is in line with the original intent and the spirit of the bill.
Attempts to update the container deposit law, however, have met with resistance from beverage manufacturers. They object on the grounds the deposits are an imposition on consumers, and that collection is an imposition on retailers. But their real incentive to oppose the change to the law is a new stipulation that would require the bottlers to hand over unclaimed deposits to the state. That is the practice in several other states. Since 1982, bottlers have kept these deposits in New York, to the tune of more than a billion dollars. Those nickels add up. They could be applied toward state recycling and environmental programs. State lawmakers should consider splitting the unclaimed deposits with manufacturers, thereby keeping their costs and aiding New York's coffers as well.
Law gives a lot, demands very little
The bottle bill is that rare environmental law that requires very little compromise of normal citizens. It promises a big payoff by reducing waste and removing trash from our towns and neighborhoods, and imposes only a tiny inconvenience on customers. The deposits are not a tax on consumers, who can recoup the cost by redeeming their bottles. The only unrecoverable cost to consumers would be slight product price increases, due to bottlers passing on the costs of increasing their recycling capacities to include the new drink containers. These increases would be a matter of pennies.
New York has lived with this system for more than 20 years. People can still afford soda. They'll still be able to afford Gatorade. Most New York citizens realize this. A 2004 poll found 70 percent of registered voters supported expanding the types of drinks covered by the bill, and 86 percent supported applying unclaimed deposits to environmental programs.
The only group that would see significant losses due to the better bill are the bottlers, who have unjustifiably turned the recycling deposits into a major source of revenue.
Unfortunately, this small number of disgruntled constituents wield a lot of lobbying power in Albany. That is no excuse to continue to ignore the enormous environmental bang for the buck the Bigger Better Bottle Bill would offer.