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May 21, 2008

The Press Republican

New bottle bill a better answer

Some people want to see mandatory deposits expanded to non-carbonated beverages. Some don't, feeling that better recycling -- not more redemptions -- is the answer to the state's litter and landfill problems. One thing both sides have to agree on though: It's a very complicated issue for which there are no easy answers.

Gov. Paterson has proposed to start adding a 5-cent charge on non-carbonated beverages bought in plastic or aluminum containers, matching the program in effect in New York for the past 26 years on beer and soda.

The state stands to benefit from this, because it winds up collecting unredeemed nickels, of which there are plenty. In New York now, about two-thirds of the returnable bottles and cans are redeemed, giving the consumer the nickel turned over when purchasing the item. About a third don't get returned, and the state winds up with all those nickels -- about $100 million worth every year. That's a significant amount for the state treasury.

The state could wind up with much more if the deposits were also charged for water and other bottled drinks that are now so popular -- and which didn't even exist when the original deposit law was passed, incidentally.

On the one hand, not imposing the deposits on these non-carbonated beverages gives them an unfair competitive advantage over soda. On the other, the only way the state makes any money off any of them is to have the nickels not collected -- in other words, to have the containers wind up in the landfills.

In truth, the best answer for the state's environment is for better recycling efforts. Now, only about 30 percent of non-deposit containers get recycled. If putting a deposit on them would mirror the success with soda and beer returnables, between 60 and 70 percent would get recycled. That still leaves a lot of containers headed for the landfills, though it would be far better than the situation now.

Putting a deposit on all beverages would present logistical problems: Some containers couldn't be put into the redemption machines that populate grocery stores and redemption centers now, as some wouldn't fit or the labels couldn't be read; bar codes from neighboring states couldn't be read by the machines; the lines at redemption centers would swell, to the frustration of patrons.

Storage and handling are a problem for stores and distributors. (When the original bottle bill went into effect, Plattsburgh Distributing, says, it had to spend about $300,000 on its trucks and warehouse to make accommodations.)

Bottles and cans represent only about 3 percent of the material that goes into landfills, so, numerically, they could be viewed as having relatively little significance, though 3 percent of an awful lot is still a lot.

Getting millions of bottles and cans recycled instead of put into a landfill is a worthy goal, and all the same obstacles were overcome by the carbonated-beverage industries with the original bill.

The state will profit only with failed redemption efforts. Still, you have to like the effects of having the law in place better than the effects of not having it.


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