February 26, 2007
Groups push for expansion of state bottle bill
By Ryan T. Fitzpatrick
TROY - This year marks the 25th anniversary of the state bottle bill, and supporters in Rensselaer County have banded together in calling on legislators to expand the law.
Rensselaer County Residents for a Bigger Better Bottle Bill, a coalition of private residents and members of environmental and political activist groups, held a news conference Saturday to rally support for the bill proposed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
The measure, included in Spitzer's executive budget proposal, would expand the five-cent deposit on carbonated-beverage containers to containers for non-carbonated drinks, such as bottled water, juice and sports drinks.
Since the current bill was first enacted in 1982, those non-carbonated beverages have become more popular, necessitating an expansion of the bill to encourage recycling, said Dr. Steve Breyman, the executive director of the Citizens Environmental Coalition and a professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
"As you can imagine, our drinking habits have changed," he said. "The statistics clearly show that stuff that has a deposit on it is recycled at three to four times the rate as stuff without a deposit on it.
"Nothing improves recycling rates like deposits," he added.
The group came together in Rensselaer County, largely for political reasons, to put pressure on state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, who has traditionally opposed expansion in previous years, said Breyman.
"That's why it's very important for us in Rensselaer County to be out in front of this, because, of course, our state senator just happens to be majority leader with considerable power in this regard," said Breyman.
Bruno remains skeptical about the new bill, said Kris Thompson, a spokesman for the senator. Yet while he has not supported the bill, Bruno is also not explicitly condemning it this year, said Thompson.
"We believe that this bill creates a new tax increase that will further burden the overtaxed, hardworking residents of this state," said Thompson. "I'm not saying that we're going to accept it, but we're not going to defeat it. We do believe that this is a further tax for the people of this state."
The millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits would result in more revenue for the state, said Breyman, noting that most of that money would be earmarked for environmental projects under the governor's proposal.
"That of course provides all sorts of great stuff for us," he said. "It's parks and recreation. It's historical sites. It's pollution-prevention initiatives. It's all these useful and broadly popular things."
Additional revenue would reach the state by requiring beverage companies to transfer all unclaimed deposits to the state Environmental Protection Fund, said Breyman. Presently, bottle companies have pocketed nearly $100 million in those deposits, he said.
"(Spitzer) placed the Bigger Better Bottle Bill at the very core of funding for environmental initiatives," said Breyman.
The fact that it has taken a quarter century for the movement to gain enough momentum in state government is indicative of the power of the bottling and retail industries' lobby, he said.
"That's why this is so striking, is that across the state, except for the bottlers and the retail beverage folks, everybody else is for it," said Breyman.
Under the current bill, businesses that process bottle returns, such as grocery stores, receive a two-cent handling fee for each container. To "sweeten the pot," the bill would increase that fee to 3½ cents, said Breyman, who noted that despite an increased fee that he said covers all expenses associated with processing bottle returns, the industry opposes the bill.
"This is the concession to them," he said. "Apparently that's an insufficient incentive because they remain opposed."
The types of containers covered under the bill would not change - metal, plastic and glass beverage containers. However, wine and liquor bottles would not be covered.
"That's a disappointment to many of us as you might expect," said Breyman. "Our sense was that these two lobbies are sufficiently strong to fight off deposits on their containers, and I think that's nation-wide."
He said the bottle bill coalition, which includes supporters from the Farm Bureau, the Citizens Environmental Coalition and the New York Public Interest Research Group, may expand to Saratoga County to rally supporters in other parts of Bruno's senate district.