August 12, 2008
Prospects called improved for expansion of bottle bill
ALBANY - The state Senate's new Republican majority leader has one of Long Island's best surf breaks in his district.
And, while 60-year-old Dean Skelos doesn't surf at Long Beach, wave riders and other environmentalists say the Republican who voted for the first bottle bill is starting to look like the kahuna who can finally expand the deposit law and keep more plastic trash out of the water and off the beach.
It's no easy feat: Since the state first started tacking a nickel onto carbonated beverage bottles in 1982, the call for a "bigger, better bottle bill" has been an annual event. It's never gone anywhere, crushed by heavy-duty lobbying.
But in July, Skelos replaced upstate Sen. Joseph Bruno, a powerful opponent of both the original bill and subsequent enhancements, as head of the Senate's Republican majority. When surfers from Long Island and New York City came to Albany in March to lobby, their focus was Bruno. Next time, they're coming to see Skelos, said Katie Lawrence, who chairs the 600-member Surfrider Foundation-Central Long Island.
"I'm confident he will at least be willing to discuss it, and I'm hopeful he'll help us get this bill passed," Lawrence said. "We're hopeful. I mean we've done a lot of cleanups. You can see it when we do a cleanup - the amount of plastic we collect."
Legislation backed by Gov. David Paterson passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly in June but died in the Senate, where Skelos now leads the narrow Republican majority. Proponents say expanding bottle deposits to non-carbonated beverages, the sheer numbers of which have grown since 1982, should be an environmental priority.
"What he has always said is that all of the sides should come together to develop an approach that balances the interests of the environmental community and consumers who are faced with ever increasing costs," said Scott Reif, spokesman for Skelos.
Advocates see other shifts in the wind, including talks that continued through the end of the legislative session in June about possible compromises. They included adding just water bottles to the list, instead of all non-carbonated drinks, and allowing beverage companies to still keep unclaimed deposits, which already amount to about $100 million a year.
Under the administration proposal, deposits would remain 5 cents and apply to virtually all beverages sold in New York. Unclaimed deposits would go to the state Environmental Protection Fund. The fee paid to stores handling empty bottle returns would increase from 2 cents to 3.5 cents apiece.
"The governor continues to support this," said Judith Enck, Paterson's deputy secretary for the environment. "The Assembly passed it, and we have little glimmers of hope in the Senate."
"A number of potential compromises were being considered," Enck said of late session "back-channel discussions" by phone. However, they never reached the same level of the serious, locked-room negotiations that led to the compromise to revamp tax credits for brownfield redevelopment.
Bottled water, iced tea, juice and other non-carbonated beverages now constitute about 25 percent of beverage sales, and more than 60 percent of the beverage containers littering New York shoreline, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency says since the bottle bill was first adopted, New York's roadside litter has been reduced by more than 70 percent, and more than 90 billion deposit containers have been redeemed, with recycling of 4,250,000 tons of glass, 850,000 tons of plastics, and more than 1 million tons of aluminum.
John Pierce, spokesman for a coalition of beverage makers, distributors and grocers that oppose expanding bottle deposits, said the group backs better municipal recycling, with bins near trash receptacles at parks, beaches and other public spots.
Bottle recycling now costs the industry about $40 million a year in New York, after subtracting receipts from unclaimed deposits. He acknowledged there's also money in recycled aluminum, about 3 cents a can, and something for clear and brown bottles, but not for green glass, which costs more to recycle than throw away.
"The fact that there's revenue to be made from the cans is one of the strongest arguments why those materials need to be in municipal curbside recycling containers. Municipalities can use that revenue," said Pierce, of New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform.
The group said expanding the deposit law would raise business fees and consumer prices. A particular problem with water bottles is determining the source for deposits and returns, Pierce said. Bottles and cans account for less than 3 percent of the overall waste stream, he said.
A New York City study of its 2004-2005 residential and street container waste stream showed 4.3 percent container glass and 0.2 percent aluminum cans.
Laura Haight, senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said beverage bottles in curbside recycling often get mixed up with contaminating items like bleach bottles, making them "virtually worthless." The new bottle bill passed the Assembly 91-54, and it's "no slam dunk" either with Skelos leading a Senate Republican majority or even if the Democrats win a majority in that chamber in November elections, though budget deficits add another incentive and taxpayers pay for curbside recycling, she said.
In New York, the redemption rate for deposit bottles is nearly 70 percent, compared to 20 percent without deposits, according to the DEC.
Nationally, 11 states have bottle deposit laws, all coastal states except Vermont, while federal legislation was introduced this year but didn't advance, said Betty McLaughlin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute. Hawaii was the most recent, effective in 2005, while Oregon last year added water bottles.
Peter Sobol, former head of the Empire State Beer Distributors Association who for 24 years owned a retail beverage business in Skelos' district, said the return handling fees, last raised 10 years ago, need to increase. He said plastic water bottles are petroleum products that won't degrade for 1,000 years and belong in deposit recycling, and he supports expanding it.
"I believe he was as helpful as he could have been," Sobol said of Skelos, who was deputy Senate majority leader under Bruno. "We feel good about our chances next year."