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June 11, 2007

Press & Sun-Bulletin: Greater Binghamton, NY

Expansion of bottle bill uncertain in N.Y.
Gannett News Service

ALBANY - With two weeks remaining in this year's legislative session, advocates are pushing a measure that would expand the state's nickel-deposit recycling program. But members of the retail and beverage industries have been working just as hard to persuade lawmakers to reject the proposal.

On Monday, advocates rallied at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass the bill before they go home for the summer on June 21. They displayed a 20-foot-tall inflated "bottle" with a message, "New York needs a bigger, better bottle bill."

A law passed in June 1982 requires a nickel deposit for every container of beer or soda purchased. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, New York has seen a 74 percent rate of return on the bottles and cans, which advocates say has led to "tremendous" reductions in litter.

But bottled water, juice and sports drinks, which are not covered by the law, now make up about a quarter of the beverage market, and more than two billion containers of the drinks are consumed in New York every year, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group.

For the past several years, the Democrat-dominated Assembly has passed a measure that would extend the nickel program to these products. The GOP-led Senate has not passed it, calling it a tax increase.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer vowed to include the proposal in the state budget for this fiscal year, which began in April, but it was pulled in the eleventh hour of budget deliberations.

Advocates are lobbying the Legislature to approve a bottle bill before the session ends June 21. Besides expanding the types of drinks that would require nickel deposits, the proposal would take the unredeemed nickels - which the Department of Conservation said totaled nearly $100 million last year - and place them in a fund that supports environmental projects. Now, that money goes back to the beverage industry.

Spitzer and legislative leaders have not taken up the issue at weekly public meetings held since April, leading many to believe that it will not pass this year.

A bill in the Senate would extend the deposit to more drinks, but would continue sending the unredeemed cash back to stores and beverage companies. Industry representatives say the money is necessary to offset the cost of complying with the state's current recycling laws.

"This is a compromise designed to increase recycling and protect the environment while considering the issues that businesses face," said Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Nassau County, the sponsor. "We don't want to remove the unclaimed nickels because they pay for the program, and if stores and bottlers don't get that money, they'll pass the cost along to the consumer."

A Senate spokesman said the bill is "being reviewed," but didn't say whether he thought it would come up for a vote. Marcellino said the measure has about a 30 percent chance of passing.

An industry spokesman agreed with the senator about the unclaimed money.

"Right now it's a partially funded mandate," with that funding coming from unredeemed bottles and cans, "but this proposal would turn it into a more expensive and completely unfunded mandate," said Jonathan Pierce, a spokesman for New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, a group created by industry officials to lobby against expansion of the deposit program.

Beverage companies have to pay handling fees to grocery stores for the cost of recycling. In turn, stores have to purchase technology and hire personnel to deal exclusively with recycling containers.

The group wants better curbside recycling programs. Pierce said that beverage containers account for less than 3 percent of the garbage, so nickel deposits are ineffective in solving larger recycling issues. His group wants more investment in the technology that municipal-recycling programs use, and he said they'd like to see a recycling bin next to every garbage can in city streets, beaches and parks.

But one advocate of expanding nickel deposits said that the group "misleads customers," and bottled drinks are not often consumed at home so home recycling programs won't help.

"They're entitled to oppose the legislation, but it's outrageous that they are posturing as a recycling-advocacy group," said Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Research Group, adding that no environmental or municipal recycling groups have signed on to the industry's initiative. Most of those groups have backed the bottle bill, she said.

Despite the contention, Marcellino said he sees room for compromise.

"There's no reason we can't cover these new types of drinks while also encouraging curbside recycling," he said. "One does not necessarily disconnect from the other."

New York is one of 11 states with deposit laws. Maine, Hawaii and Oregon have extended the program to water and other non-carbonated drinks.


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