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April 25, 2007

The Post-Standard

Bruno bottles up blight fight
SEAN KIRST

Every morning, once the snow is gone, Scott Dana is outside with a garbage bag on South Salina Street in Syracuse. Dana is property manager at Valley Plaza, owned by Ellicott Development Co., and he is serious about keeping trash and litter off the property.

In that role, as part of the daily routine, he watches as men and women walk past him with bags filled with returnable containers. Dana said they are heading for P&C Foods, where they can exchange those containers for a few dollars in deposits.

Then Dana turns back to his job. He cleans a landscape cluttered with garbage that includes plastic water, juice and sports drink bottles.

"It doesn't make sense," Dana said. "I don't know why a juice bottle isn't returnable."

That view is shared by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and an unusual coalition across the state. It includes environmentalists, the "mom and pop" storefront beverage return industry, and a gray-haired generation that can't forget the community ethic of the Great Depression and World War II a time without fast-food trash, a time when every soda container and milk bottle was returnable, a time when streets and highways were almost free of litter.

Opposition to an expanded Bottle Bill is personified by Joe Bruno, majority leader of the state Senate. In 2005, offering an opinion that has hardly changed, Bruno said it would make "rubbish carriers out of everybody that goes shopping." The expanded bill, Bruno said at the time, "is just nonsense."

What he did not address is a simple truth: If you oppose an expanded Bottle Bill, you're conceding that New York will have more litter.

Take a walk along the grounds of any high school at the end of the day, or along a city street, or along a heavily traveled county highway. You'll find at least a dozen dirty and broken bottles of water and Gatorade for every discarded bottle of soda.

Without the nickel deposit, water and juice bottles are more likely to get dropped by pedestrians or tossed from a car window. And without the deposit, once those containers are on the ground, that's pretty much where they stay.

Spitzer came into office saying he intended to expand the Bottle Bill, but Bruno wouldn't buy it during the budget process. Politically, at a time when Bruno conceding that New York will have more litter.

Take a walk along the grounds of any high school at the end of the day, or along a city street, or along a heavily traveled county highway. You'll find at least a dozen dirty and broken bottles of water and Gatorade for every discarded bottle of soda.

Without the nickel deposit, water and juice bottles are more likely to get dropped by pedestrians or tossed from a car window. And without the deposit, once those containers are on the ground, that's pretty much where they stay.

Spitzer came into office saying he intended to expand the Bottle Bill, but Bruno wouldn't buy it during the budget process. Politically, at a time when Bruno is trying to establish that he can stand up to the governor, the expanded Bottle Bill becomes an especially volatile issue.

Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with NYPIRG in Albany, said legislators within the state Senate and Assembly are again prepared to present the question as a bill, which means the debate will heat up over the next few months. The chances of seeing it approved come down to one thing, Haight said:

"It's all about moving the Senate toward agreement or compromise."

The grocery and beverage industries argue that an expanded bottle bill essentially becomes another tax. But there are compelling reasons to support it. The Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency recycled 239,000 tons of mandatory recyclables in 2006, according to Andrew Radin, OCRRA's director of recycling.

That represents 44 percent of all those materials, a level of recycling that simply isn't happening for water, sports drink and juice bottles, Radin said. While OCRRA studies show that 80 percent of returnable containers in Onondaga County are brought back for deposit, only 20 percent of nonreturnable drink containers are recycled.

"They end up as litter on roads, parkways and streets, or they end up in the trash," Radin said. A deposit on those containers would "turbocharge recycling," he said. It would create an additional 1,000 tons of recycled material annually in Onondaga County. It would also create a powerful incentive against chucking those containers on the ground.

The people who choose to litter would be the ones paying the tax because someone else would come along and claim their nickels.

Radin echoes a point made by Suzie Awwad, co-owner of Kenny's Family Restaurant on South Geddes Street. Awwad saves the returnable bottles used at her restaurant, and then donates them to the West Genesee High School band. And she has regular customers who routinely make a few extra dollars by picking up returnables around the neighborhood.

"You drive through Syracuse, and you see all those cans and bottles along the streets, and it's a shame," Awwad said. "This could be such a beautiful city. If they (passed this law), there's all these people who would walk around and pick those bottles up, and more power to them for being ready to do it."

For Dana, who maintains the grounds at Valley Plaza, the notion just makes sense. Every day, he said, he sees two kinds of people: There are neighborhood residents who appreciate the work done by Dana and his partner, Adam Taylor, and who thank Dana and Taylor for the effort.

Then there are the people so worn down by defeat or despair that they feel nothing for the neighborhood around them, people who throw cans or bottles on the ground even when a trash can is five feet away.

People like that, Dana said, will always chuck their empty bottles.

At least with a deposit, someone else might pick them up.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. Call him at 470-6015.

http://www.syracuse.com/articles/news/index.ssf?/base/news-0/1177492275220380.xml&coll=1&thispage=2

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