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June 11, 2007

Push to add deposit to more beverage containers

For a guide to how the beverage market has changed during the past decade, take a quick tour of any Long Island deli or grocery store. Refrigerator cases of soda and beer have multiplied to accommodate a bewildering array of new, nonfizzy products: iced teas, sport drinks, energy drinks and the now-ubiquitous bottles of water.

Tastes may have changed, but the New York State bottle deposit law has not.

Intended to boost recycling and curb litter from empty beverage containers, the 1982 law requires a nickel deposit for each beer, soda or wine cooler. Customers who return the empty containers to the store get their nickel back; retailers pass those empties back to their local bottler or distributor for recycling. The nickel deposit charged on bottles that are never returned goes back to bottlers and distributors -- nickels that add up to tens of millions of dollars annually.

But the law doesn't include the noncarbonated drinks that now make up an estimated one-quarter of the beverage market -- and an increasing share of litter along state roads and shores.

Attempts to expand the law have repeatedly stalled in the Republican-dominated state Senate. But this year the battle in Albany has extra heat. As other states take steps toward expanding their own deposit laws, Gov. Eliot Spitzer has put the full force of his administration -- including a public relations push by the state's environmental agency -- behind what supporters enthusiastically call the Bigger Better Bottle Law.

"There are tremendous litter reductions because of the bottle bill," said Judith Enck, Spitzer's deputy secretary for the environment and energy and herself a former bottle bill lobbyist. "Rarely do you see beer or soda bottles. You see lots of water bottles."

Supporters of the 1982 law say it has reduced roadside litter by more than 70 percent and encouraged recycling. Since then, the average statewide redemption rate for deposit containers has been 74 percent, compared with 20 percent of those with no deposit, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Environmental advocates hope to spur a similar increase in other containers, particularly water bottles. Nationwide, bottled water sales have increased nearly sevenfold since 1997, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

But fierce resistance continues to dog expansion efforts, despite the extra press generated by DEC Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis' state tour last month to honor the bill's 25th anniversary.

Bottle battle

Bottlers, beverage distributors and grocery stores that were essentially forced into the recycling business by the original law have no desire to expand their current redemption operations. They say curbside recycling, which was not available 25 years ago, is more convenient. Expanding the current law, they say, will drive up costs for consumers. What's more, all containers covered under an expanded bottle law still comprise less than 3 percent of all discarded waste, they say.

They argue that the state should instead concentrate on expanding curbside recycling, which was nonexistent at the time the law was passed.

Environmental advocates insist the two can work in concert, and that one recycling method need not supplant the other.

And those who back the bottle bill expansion say the current law yields a cleaner stream of recyclables with a higher market value than curbside recycling, because deposit containers are more finely sorted than the jumble of recyclable items that land in curbside bins. For instance, separating glass by color -- as recycling machines at supermarkets do -- means those shards can be sold and used to make other bottles, whereas mixed glass has little to no resale value.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) continues to oppose the plan, calling it an increased tax on New Yorkers. A particular sore point is Spitzer's proposal to take unclaimed deposits away from bottlers and beverage distributors, who say they need it to pay for processing the empty containers. Under Spitzer's plan, the money would revert to the state to fund an estimated $100 million in environmental projects.

Ken Meyer, senior vice president of Long Island's Clare Rose beer distributors, said the unclaimed deposits are a necessity.

On a recent morning, the sound of crushed glass and metal rang through the company's 8,000 square foot recycling facility in Patchogue, where workers process 8,000 to 15,000 pounds of redeemed glass and 141,000 aluminum cans each day. The compacted material, which includes containers that other companies pay Clare Rose to process, is then carted away and sold for scrap. "Our recycling center could not maintain itself," Meyer said.

Still, those unclaimed nickels add up. In 2004-05, Long Island beverage distributors and bottlers kept $17.7 million in unclaimed deposits -- second only to New York City, where unclaimed deposits totaled $37.7 million, according to the DEC.

"On Long Island, they get to keep almost five out of 10 nickels," said John Kowalchyk, the town of Brookhaven's waste management commissioner. He said he doubts the local beverage industry is losing money now on recycling because fewer deposits are redeemed here than in upstate regions, where return rates run as high as 90 percent.

Alternative proposal

One possible way around the standoff is a compromise bill sponsored by Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), that would include noncarbonated beverage containers but let the industry keep the unclaimed deposits. Marcellino called Spitzer's version a "nickel grab."

According to Enck, the governor "will consider every reasonable compromise that expands the bottle bill in an effective fashion ... "

But Jonathan Piece, a spokesman for New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, a coalition of grocerers and the beverage industry, said anything that expands the deposit system is "based on an outdated, inefficient and inconvenient idea."

Although the compromise bill actually has passed the Senate's environmental committee, Marcellino sounds less than hopeful about its chances. "The industry would prefer nothing to happen," he said in a recent interview. "Senator Bruno doesn't exactly like the idea of expanding it."

With the legislative session's June 21 recess looming ever closer, chances of an expanded bottle bill seem distant -- if less so than in past years.

"One way or another we're going to have to deal with the bottles," said Adrienne Esposito of the Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which supports Spitzer's proposal. "Either the industry will do it, or the taxpayers. We want the industry to do it because they're the ones making money on the product."


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