March 25, 2007
It's time to update the bottle bill
By Laura Haight
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the bottle bill, New York's most effective litter control and recycling program. Since 1982, more than 90 billion bottles and cans have been returned and recycled in New York because of the 5-cent refundable deposit on beer, soda and carbonated beverages. Almost immediately after it started, New Yorkers could see the difference -- less broken glass in our streets and playgrounds and fewer empty bottles and cans polluting our rivers, parks, farm fields and public spaces. We have cleaner communities and a healthier environment because of the bottle bill.
But over the past 25 years, consumer habits have changed dramatically. The bottle bill was launched long before bottled water and sports drinks became popular. But today, non-carbonated beverages make up more than 27 percent of the beverage market -- and a disproportionate amount of our litter. Beach cleanups conducted across the state show that there are twice as many water bottles and other non-deposit containers littering our shorelines as deposit containers. And the recycling numbers are even worse. While 80 percent of beer and soda containers get recycled -- mostly through the bottle bill -- only 20 percent of non-deposit containers are recycled; the rest end up in the trash or litter.
Today, it makes no sense for a bottle of sparkling water to be covered under the bottle bill and a bottle of plain water to end up as pollution. And if common sense guided the politicians in Albany, this program would have been updated years ago. But for years, the state Senate, under pressure from the beverage giants and the food industry, has blocked a proposal to update the bottle bill.
It's time to bring New York's most effective environmental law up to date. The "Bigger Better Bottle Bill," championed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and members of the state Assembly, updates the bottle bill to include bottled water and other non-carbonated beverages. It also requires beverage distributors to transfer unclaimed deposits to the state to support local recycling and other environmental programs, as many other states do. In addition, it makes a number of changes that would help retailers and small businesses comply with the law, such as increasing the handling fee they receive and providing incentives for more redemption centers.
This might be the breakthrough year for the Bigger Better Bottle Bill. Both Gov. Spitzer and the Assembly have proposed including it in the 2007-08 state budget. They estimate that the unclaimed deposits would generate between $100 million and $180 million a year in new revenue for the state's Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), a dedicated trust fund for New York's environment. The beverage companies don't like this, but at a time when every nickel counts, these unclaimed deposits should be used to help our environment.
We all share responsibility for keeping our communities clean and healthy. But state legislators need to do their part. More than 2 billion bottles and cans end up in the trash or polluting our state's rivers, beaches and neighborhoods each year because of a loophole in our laws that the politicians in Albany have failed to close. Tell your state lawmakers that it's time to make New York's most successful litter prevention and recycling program even more effective. The Bigger Better Bottle Bill is a small investment that will yield big returns for our environment and for our communities.
Haight is senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany, New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.nypirg.org or www.bottlebill.org.