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March 19, 2007

The Buffalo News

Improve the bottle bill
Adding deposit to new categories would expand a good program

This year is the 25th anniversary of the bottle bill, and Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer has proposed an expansion that includes bottled water and other non-carbonated beverages left out of the original law.

The proposal has full backing from environmental groups that also want to see the bill include funding for programs. A lot of municipalities like it, too. But many retailers and distributors, citing increased costs, hate the idea.

A balance is needed, but expansion of the bottle bill deserves support as a widening of a concept that has worked for the betterment of communities and conservation. State lawmakers do need to work to minimize the financial impact on businesses, though, and keep this good environmental bill from becoming just another unfunded mandate.

There’s a start on that, in this proposal. The state could increase the per-container handling fee for collection points, and compensate sites for the purchase of a wider range of the “reverse vending machines” that take in and read bar codes on containers automatically.

There are two separate issues at play in current versions of the bill. One is the expansion. The other is the state’s bid to take unclaimed deposits — about $80 million to $100 million per year in nickel deposits on bottles that still go unredeemed — and put it into the Environmental Protection Fund, instead of leaving it with the retailers and distributors to pay the costs of collection.

The bottle issue is the simplest. There is a substantial new stream of litter to be eliminated and plastic and glass to be recycled. Current law places a 5-cent refundable deposit only on beer, soda and wine coolers sold in New York. The update, known as the “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill,” adds bottled water, iced tea, sports drinks, juice and other noncarbonated beverages with exemptions for wine, liquor, dairy products, infant formula and certain other products.

That meets the intent of the original law, only better. While businesses object to the need for more storage space, newer machines that could read different styles of containers and what they say could be a cleanliness and odor problem in stores that sell food, there are measures in the bill that would offset some of the cost of meeting those challenges and provisions to protect small stores.

The financial dimension is more problematic. New York does not need more costs and processes for business. But the proposal would hike handling fees from 2 cents to 3.5 cents per container, and proponents argue that the bill should provide a dedicated source of revenue for the state’s anemic and budgeting-dependent Environmental Protection Fund.

Large and small store owners, a group of them involved in New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, contend that the unclaimed deposits now cover only program costs. They also argue that expanding the bottle bill would increase the state’s recycling rate by less than .2 percent, a barely measurable change from the current 30 percent overall rate, while having a chilling effect on other recycling programs in communities around the state. A more cost-effective way to improve both recycling and litter control, the group contends, would be to spread the cost across all waste stream contributors by creating two dedicated funds supported by a broadbased fee, paid by businesses that produce or sell products in New York that are recyclable or may contribute to litter.

State lawmakers should hear those financial concerns and work to ease them, but the better approach is to stick with a concept that has worked and make sure it continues to do far more good than harm. Expand the bottle bill.


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