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April 16, 2008

the Post-Standard

Extended bottle bill clear pick

Every year, they emerge at this time, as reliable as the robins or crocuses.

You find them in city and county parks. They show up along busy suburban roads and on the grounds of schools. They come out in the morning and under the streetlights. Beyond all else, you know them by the garbage bags or wooden tongs they carry.

They are an informal and relentless brigade of litter-pickers. They come from different neighborhoods, political backgrounds and walks of life, but they share one passion about Central New York:

To these volunteer litter warriors, it is unbearable to see the roads and streets that define our region covered with trash.

For that reason, they applauded Tuesday's commitment by Gov. David Paterson to somehow get an expanded bottle bill approved, a move Paterson envisions as good for the environment and good for the state budget. His proposal would add a nickel deposit to the booming number of containers used for water, juice and "sports drinks," such as Gatorade

"I see a lot of those plastic bottles around," said Marion Ervin, who routinely organizes cleanups on the South Side of Syracuse. "Well, I tell you: If you had a nickel deposit on them, you wouldn't see them thrown around the corners anymore. Somebody would definitely pick them up."

Paterson intends to revive the expanded bottle bill, which didn't survive the budget process in Albany. The obstacle is the state Senate, where Majority Leader Joe Bruno has long been an outspoken opponent.

"We feel it would be prohibitive to consumers," and the bill would also increase costs for supermarkets, convenience stores and bottle distributors, said Scott Reif, a Bruno spokesman.

To many of us, the bipartisan imperative for supporting the change can be seen right now on city streets in Syracuse, on well-traveled roads across Onondaga County or on the shoulders of interstates that cut across our region.

Almost everywhere you look, you'll find crushed and broken sports drink and water bottles. They are a central source of litter in trashed communities. For that reason alone, if you talk with the volunteers who get their hands dirty cleaning our streets, they'll tell you they want an expanded bottle bill.

"Oh, my God, yes," said Nancy Bronstein, who regularly bags litter along East Genesee Street in Syracuse. It bothers her enough, she said, that she often sends e-mails and letters to her representatives, urging them to push for the bill.

The idea also has support from Jeff Wright, commissioner of public works in Syracuse. The new bottle bill, he said, "would take a tremendous amount of trash out of the waste system."

Wright can only daydream about the freedom it would give him in deploying his crews, since 12 to 15 city workers now spend each day bagging litter, much of it plastic bottles.

"When I was going home, I went by a convenience store," Wright said, "and I'll bet I saw 10 pieces of plastic trash thrown on the ground in front of it."

With a nickel deposit, he said, that garbage would be gone.

A year ago, the expanded bottle bill suffered what's come to be an annual defeat. It fell victim, at least in part, to the open hostility between then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Bruno. Paterson's ascension, however, might create a changed dynamic, especially if you remember how Bruno stood and applauded when Paterson used his first speech as governor to call for a new era of cooperation.

What better way to start than with the bigger bottle bill? Bruno, who presents himself as a voice for hard-working constituents across the state, might want to stop and think about the gray-haired generation of New Yorkers who survived a Depression and a world war.

Those men and women, now well into their 80s, remember when all bottles carried a deposit, during an era of national discipline and spotless roads. The world changed for those folks after the war. They watched how a "no deposit, no return" mentality transformed their parks and streets into garbage dumps.

An expanded bottle bill could provide dramatic relief, according to Andrew Radin, director of recycling for the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency.

"Typically, these (water and sports drinks) are consumed outside the home," Radin said. "Whether (someone) is at school or out shopping or involved in recreation in the community, it's not as convenient to recycle as it would be at home."

That's a nice way of saying that thousands upon thousands of sports drink bottles get thrown onto the ground, where there is no particular incentive for anyone to pick them up . . .

Unless, of course, you are one of Central New York's litter warriors. Their blood boils at the idea of kindergartners kicking aside garbage on the way to school. To them, scattered garbage is a sign of community defeat, and there are ways - if we care enough - to overcome the problem:

We need muscular enforcement of existing litter laws. We need to tarp and cover recycling trucks. We need to teach our kids to take ownership of their school grounds and their streets.

And we need to set aside all the baloney and pass this bottle bill.

Within days, guaranteed, you'd see a difference in New York.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. He'll be away from the office until April 21.



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