Recycling Proposal Has Fizz, Leaving Proponents Hopeful
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
ALBANY, March 21 — Like hardy perennials, or creatures of the undead, proposals to broaden New York’s bottle-recycling laws rise up each spring in the Capitol. And just as regularly, those proposals are defeated.
While vigorously supported by hundreds of environmental groups, businesses and municipal officials, the bottle bill — as it is known in Albany — has been even more vigorously opposed by beverage companies, grocers and their allies in the Republican-controlled State Senate. So while soda and beer drinkers must pay a nickel deposit on their beverage containers, those New Yorkers partial to bottled water, iced tea and sports drinks do not.
But opponents and supporters alike agree that some version of the bottle bill is closer to passage than it has been in many years, thanks to a decision by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a longtime advocate of the measure, to fold it into his executive budget. Now the bottle bill has become yet another test of the governor’s steamrolling powers, at a time when both Mr. Spitzer and Senator Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, are battling over health care and education spending.
“This year’s bottle bill has been upgraded because of the governor’s inclusion of it in the budget,” said Steven W. Harris, executive director of the New York State Beer Wholesalers, who remains determined to consign the bottle bill to the trash bin. “That’s the big political difference.”
Mr. Bruno, who once called the bottle bill “nonsense,” said on Wednesday that he still considered it bad policy, amounting to a backdoor tax increase of hundreds of millions of dollars. But he added, “We are always open to compromise and negotiating in good faith, if people are acting in good faith.”
Comments like those from Mr. Bruno and other Senate Republicans have left proponents of the bill hoping that they can win approval.
“I’m not hearing them publicly coming out against the bottle bill the way they have in years past,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group. The State Assembly’s Democratic majority backs a similar measure.
“The odd man out here is the State Senate,” said Judith Enck, the governor’s chief policy adviser. “And I think every day, more and more Senate Republicans are seeing the wisdom of this legislation.”
That would mark a shift from the day 25 years ago when the original nickel-deposit law passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Hugh L. Carey. (Mr. Bruno voted against it.)
Currently, the law applies to glass, metal or plastic containers for most carbonated drinks. The governor’s proposal would include most noncarbonated beverages, though it would exempt milk, soup and some other liquids.
Proponents say that under the new law, consumers would return as many as three billion more bottles and cans for recycling each year, based on the percentage of deposits that get claimed for containers already covered.
But grocers and bottlers say that collecting and storing all those containers would be an unfair burden on them, made worse by a provision of the legislation that would force them to give up millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits that they currently keep. Currently, distributors pay retailers 2 cents for each bottle they collect, money that comes out of the unclaimed deposits the new law would take away.
“This gets us further into the garbage business,” Mr. Harris said. “That’s our biggest beef. To rub salt in the wound, it takes away the source of revenue that we have to pay for that structure — the unclaimed deposits.”
Under the proposed law, those deposits would be transferred into the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which provides money to buy land for the state’s parks and preserves. Budget officials estimated that all those unclaimed nickels would add up to $100 million a year; environmental groups put the likely total at almost twice that amount.
Mr. Spitzer’s budget for the coming fiscal year adds $25 million to the fund, paid for with proceeds from the bottle bill. Opponents of the bill say they support more money for environmental protection but argue that lawmakers should find a different source of money, since under the proposed bill, the fund would get money only when people fail to recycle their bottles. Environmental advocates reject that reasoning.
“What we’re talking about is, if people don’t return their bottles and cans, where does the money go?” Ms. Haight said. “We’d like to have a 100 percent return rate. But the fact of the matter is, it’s more like 70 percent.”
Still, even those Senate Republicans who support the bill say that they have qualms about Mr. Spitzer’s strategy of folding the measure into the budget. The Senate’s version of the budget does not include the bill, though it does concur with Mr. Spitzer in adding $25 million to the environmental fund.
“The people that want the expanded bottle bill are trying to address those concerns, and those negotiations are going on,” said State Senator John J. Bonacic, a Republican whose district includes parts of Orange County.
Mr. Bonacic has sponsored bottle legislation in the past. “Whether it becomes part of the budget package,” he added, “I don’t think it will.”
But Ms. Enck said she was optimistic about the bill’s passage. “Maybe, finally, hopefully,” she said.