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November 21, 2008

The Buffalo News

Claim bottle revenue
State should expand recycling law, apply unclaimed deposits to budget

It would be encouraging, if not for the current painful state of affairs, that the state is taking another, serious look at the Bigger Better Bottle Bill. That measure started out as a recycling incentive and a boost for the environment, but it now has new life as one of the few revenue-generating measures that Gov. David A. Paterson has proposed for the next budget.

Despite industry lobbying, the Assembly has passed the expanded bottle-deposit bill three times over the past four years, but it has failed to pass the full Legislature. Nevertheless, state lawmakers should finally adopt this commonsense measure, regardless of the million-and-one reasons.

The governor’s budget projects that the unclaimed deposits on an expanded bottle bill would add up to $118 million a year to state revenues, which is a conservative estimate by some measure. The Container Recycling Institute figures that beverage companies are currently keeping more than $144 million a year in unclaimed deposits under the existing law, and that this would increase to $218 million a year if the law is updated to include bottled water, iced tea and other noncarbonated beverages.

Proponents for the bill have long offered a compelling case for updating New York’s bottle law on its environmental merits. It was once hoped that an expanded bottle bill would benefit the Environmental Protection Fund, currently funded largely through real estate transfer fees, by providing a dedicated source of revenue for the fund allocated from the deposit revenue stream.

Instead, under the governor’s call for austerity in spending, the Environmental Protection Fund now actually will be reduced as other sources of fund revenue are diverted into the state’s general pot of money. Environmentalists remain hopeful that, eventually, bottle bill revenues added to existing sources of funding will double the size of the Environmental Protection Fund.

Although that’s a circuitous route for money to flow, it would be progress. The return rate for bottles could get considerably higher, by extension benefiting the environment.

Consider the fact that noncarbonated beverages, such as bottled water and sports drinks, comprise one-third of New York’s beverage market. Not to include them in the 5-cent deposit law is nonsensical.

This is exactly the argument that has been made year after year, when the proposal has gone nowhere largely due to the influence of companies able to lobby for the status quo. Opponents of a 5-cent deposit on water bottles long maintained that it would add expense, require expanded sorting facilities and be “anti-consumer.”

But the current system, in which beverage companies continue to keep all of the unclaimed bottle deposits because current law does not say where the nickel should go, is anti-taxpayer. It is a loophole that should be tightened, one that over the past 25 years has amounted to more than $2 billion in unclaimed nickel deposits, which the industry says — questionably, at best — is needed to offset the cost of collection and recycling.

Crisis really does breed opportunity, and this current crisis has set up an opportunity for elected officials in Albany to pass this bill. When facing the possibility of cutting funding for education, health care, environmental protection and other programs, lawmakers have to stop allowing beverage companies to keep the public’s unclaimed deposits.


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