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September 8, 2006

The Journal News

Efforts afoot to expand the 'bottle bill'

New Yorkers have been redeeming soda and beer cans and bottles since 1983, when the state Returnable Container Act went into effect.

If supporters of a proposed expanded bill have their way, residents may eventually be redeeming water, sports and fruit drink bottles as well.

Opponents are doing their best to see that never happens.

The intention of the original law, better known as the "bottle bill," was to help curtail littering and encourage recycling before mandatory recycling laws existed.

Around Rockland, there is a lot less litter when it comes to soda and beer cans and bottles, probably due to both the deposit program and curbside recycling programs.

The army of volunteers organized by Keep Rockland Beautiful collect roadside and waterside litter each year and have also helped to greatly reduce any blight.

But plastic bottles and grocery bags are prevalent during cleanups along creeks, streams and lakes — most of which serve as drinking water sources.

Experts say they get washed from roadsides into storm drains and other waterways when it rains or when snow melts.

They often get onto the roadsides when someone throws the bottle out a car window.

Bottle bill supporters say expanding the redemption program could help improve things because purchasers or someone else looking to make money would redeem the bottles.

Not all bottles end up along the road or in a waterway; some also go into the waste stream and are transported to landfills or incinerators.

The bottom line, said Jenny Gitlitz, a spokeswoman for the Container Recycling Institute, was that the containers were not being recycled. In fact, the CRI estimates that about 68 million — or just about 22 percent — of all water, sports and fruit drink bottles were recycled last year.

If just 70 percent were recycled, Gitlitz said, the equivalent of 600,000 barrels of crude oil could be saved and 20,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions could be cut.

CRI works to shift the social and environmental costs of container and packaging waste manufacturing, recycling and disposal from the government and taxpayers to producers and consumers.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that since the bottle bill's inception, consumers have redeemed nearly 79 billion containers, sending 5.5 million tons of material to recycling plants instead of landfills and incinerators.

When the original bottle bill was passed, water, sports and fruit drinks accounted for a sliver of the overall beverage market. Today, they represent about 20 percent.

What some consumers might be surprised to learn is that the nickels they fail to claim do not end up in the government's pockets, but in the beverage industry's.

Statewide, that added up to about $81 million in 2004.

The DEC estimated that 5.3 billion beverage containers bearing a 5-cent deposit were sold in New York between Oct. 1, 2003, and Sept. 30, 2004, the latest year for which the DEC had statistics. Consumers redeemed only about $182.8 million of the estimated $264.2 million they spent in deposits in that time.

Consumers who live in DEC Region 3, which encompasses Rockland, Westchester, Putnam, Orange, Dutchess, Sullivan and Ulster counties, paid out about $23.1 million in deposits and redeemed about $12.1 million, leaving about $11 million unclaimed.

Statewide, the redemption rate for all deposit containers was about 70 percent. Region 3's redemption rate of 52.7 percent was the lowest rate of all nine DEC regions.

The proposed new bill — dubbed the "Bigger, Better Bottle Bill" — would require any unclaimed deposits be turned over to the state to fund environmental programs.

Opponents argue that beverages don't account for much of the overall waste stream and that adding more bottles to the redemption list would not significantly reduce that stream, or the presence of litter.

They further argue that the nickel deposit is just another tax, and that environmentalists are pushing for it simply to find a new revenue source.

Because so many communities have recycling programs, removing containers from those collection bins only serves to reduce the revenue that municipalities can get for selling the materials as scrap metal.

Stephen Kay, a spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association in Alexandria, Va., said increasing educational programs would be more beneficial to the public.

"We support curbside or comprehensive recycling programs," Kay said. "We would rather see consumers educated."

Education would help reduce any litter issues, he said, and boost recycling program participation.

Kay also said opportunities to recycle should be expanded. For example, parks, convenience stores and gas stations, among other places frequented by the public, should set up or increase the number of recycling bins they offer.

Opponents say an expanded program would force more workers to spend more time keeping the redemption machines and rooms clean and force stores to give up additional, and valuable, shelf space.

Supporters say an expanded program would not require extra storage space because existing redemption machines could be reconfigured. They argue that such a program would complement curbside recycling.

Patricia Zampino was busy feeding soda cans into the redemption machine at ShopRite in Airmont yesterday.

"They take your nickel," Zampino said. "They should recycle."

Zampino supported expanding the redemption program. She said bringing a few more bottles back to the store would not inconvenience her, and would make her feel that she was doing her part in the recycling effort.

"I already bring back soda bottles that are plastic, so why not," Zampino said.

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