March 11, 2007
Another bottle bill battle in Albany
By MICHAEL HILL
Associated Press Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Non-fizzy drinks like Snapple and bottled water weren't big yet when New York's bottle law was approved in 1982.
It barely mattered then that nickel deposits were assessed only on soda and beer.
That's changed now, so Gov. Eliot Spitzer wants to add nickel deposits to non-carbonated drinks. He also wants to redirect unclaimed deposit money that now goes to the industry to state coffers. The double-barreled proposal - worth $100 million or more a year - sets the new governor on a collision course with businesses that would rather see the whole deposit system relegated to the trash bin.
While Spitzer has made headlines by taking on hospital chiefs and lawmakers, an early test of the new governor's promise to shake up the status quo could come down whether he can push through a deposit law that that has fallen flat in the Legislature in past years.
"This is a top environmental priority for Governor Spitzer," said Judith Enck, Spitzer's chief environmental adviser.
"We are fully committed to getting this through this year."
This is no nickel-ante fight. New York consumers paid $264.2 million in deposits in 2004, according to the latest state figures. Almost a third of the deposits are never redeemed. That unclaimed money _ $81.3 million in 2004 _ now goes to bottlers and wholesalers.
Spitzer wants to use that money to help boost the size of the Environmental Protection Fund. With the addition of non-carbonated drinks, the governor expects the state to take in an estimated $100 million a year once it's up and running.
Environmentalists say Spitzer's proposal would send more bottles to recycling centers instead of the dump or the gutter. Local officials support the bill for same reason, but also because it would fund municipal environmental grants. The New York Conference of Mayors and the New York Association of Counties both support the measure.
Arrayed on the other side are dozens of distributors, bottlers, and retailers. An umbrella group called New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform lists among its members Pepsi Bottling of Manhattan, Anheuser Busch Brewery of Baldwinsville, Snapple, Pathmark, Price Chopper and Manley's Mighty Mart.
Opponents claim the bill would overwhelm space-crunched New York City markets, create additional work and headaches for distributors and retailers and drive beverage sales across state lines.
"We can either sell food in clean stores or we can run recycling centers," said James Rogers of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, which represents grocery stores. "It's difficult to do both."
They also say it would drive up costs because of the new burdens placed on businesses. Opponents rely on research that says the average price of a bottle of juice, ice tea or water could increase by 15 cents, once the deposit and costs like additional sorting and transport are factored in.
"Spitzer talked about no new taxes," said Bob Lanz, vice president of public affairs at Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of New York. "Well, clearly this would be a tax, and would result in significant increases in the costs of our products because ultimately the consumer has to pay for them."
Enck dismissed the 15 cent estimate, though she said a proposed handling fee increase to retailers of 1.5 cents per container could be reflected in the price.
Enck said she remembers the same sort of dire predictions from the industry when she lobbied for the original bill decades ago for the New York Public Interest Research Group. She said opponents claimed last time that jobs would be lost and people wouldn't bother to return a bottle for a nickel.
"We heard many Chicken Little arguments that were never realized," Enck said. "We heard the stores would be overrun with rats and vermin."
Rogers and other business opponents say New York would be better served by scrapping the bottle law altogether in favor of curbside programs that would handle a greater variety of recyclables.
Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Research Group counters the 80 percent recycling rate for beer and soda is obtained only though the combination of the bottle law (70 percent) and curbside recycling (10 percent). For comparison, she noted that the recycling rate for non-carbonated drinks is 20 percent.
"You need both," she said.
Efforts to take unclaimed nickels for the state date to the Cuomo administration. And similar expansion bills have been approved by the state Assembly in the last couple of years, only to die in the Republican-led state Senate.
But proponents see things aligning in their favor with Spitzer in office. The new governor incorporated the bottle bill within his state budget proposal, which could make it harder to swat down than a stand-alone bill, and tied it to the Environmental Protection Fund, a source of funding for local projects that is very popular with state lawmakers.
The budget is due April 1.