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January 16, 2007

This could be the year we get our bigger, better bottle law
 Fred LeBrun

This year marks the 25th anniversary of New York's bottle law, arguably the state's most successful recycling and litter prevention program.Many of us can remember those bad old days before the bottle law was passed, when roadways, stream banks and streets were jammed with litter and trash to a depressing degree. Litter begets litter. That hasn't gone away altogether, but the reduction has been dramatic and the bottle law is largely responsible for getting us in gear.

Deposit incentives work. Money talks, even when it's only a nickel. An estimated 90 billion bottles and cans have been returned and recycled for that nickel. Attitudes about recycling and personal responsibility for it have changed for the better in the last quarter century and, again, the obvious success of the bottle law has contributed significantly.

Success can also beget greater success. Our waste stream has changed, and we need to keep up. It's time to ratchet up the bottle law with what proponents for years have been touting as the bigger, better bottle bill that includes a nickel deposit on bottled water, iced tea and juice containers.

Who ever would have guessed how popular bottled water would become? Certainly we had no clue to that 25 years ago, but it's the new reality. About 80 percent of deposit beverage containers are recycled, 70 percent through the bottle law and 10 percent through curbside pickup. Only about 20 percent of nondeposit containers are recycled.

So despite the predictable grumblings from the bottlers and supermarkets that claim they're imposed on horribly by the recycling of cans and bottles, where we need to go is a no-brainer. Expanding the bottle law is sound environmental policy solely on its merits as a reducer of waste.

Give the supermarkets a bigger handling fee and that should stop their complaining. In fairness, they deserve more. Meanwhile, under the new plan, bottlers would lose the windfall they're now receiving in unclaimed deposits.

That said, getting a bigger, better bottle bill through the Legislature is a reasonably heavy lift, especially on the Senate side, which traditionally represents the interests of business. For five years, the BBBB has gone nowhere. Last year it never got out of committee in the Senate.

But it languishes no more; Governor Spitzer has seen to that. In his State of the State address, he cited the $100 million to $200 million in anticipated unclaimed deposits from an expanded bottle law as the source for any future increases in the Environmental Protection Fund, which currently gets $225 million a year in state money. The fund is the pot from which virtually every environmental expense, from land acquisition to landfill closures, is paid.

It's a brilliant if gutsy move by Spitzer. He's putting an expanded bottle law on the negotiating table as a new source of revenue, with exactly what expectation we won't know until his budget comes out. He's behind it, with his 70 percent voter mandate last November.

The environmental community will have to lobby hard for it, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno will have to deal with it, up or down and in public.
Insiders are suggesting that the outcome of a Feb. 6 special election on Long Island for a crucial vacated Senate seat will have a bearing on Bruno's negotiating position, and ultimately the fate of the expanded bottle law and all that depends on it.

And you thought this was merely about nickel deposits on bottled-water containers and doing the right thing. The truth is that those nickels are right in the wheelhouse of power politics at the moment.

LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at flebrun@timesunion.com.

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