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August 26, 2008

Messenger Post

Unbottle the bottle bill

New York’s bottle bill has helped keep litter off our streets and out of our landfills since its inception in 1982. But like so many laws that were passed long ago, it needs to be updated. Now, if only our esteemed state leaders would eschew the lobbyists and let good policy and common sense prevail.

When the law took effect more than a quarter-century ago — over the objections of the same doomsday lobbyists who couldn’t fathom how the beverage industry could survive such a radical change — the number of bottled beverages was relatively small. Most were either soda, juice or beer. But go to a convenience store today and the choices are mindboggling.

There’s countless brands of soda, juice, beer and wine, plus a variety of bottled water (some even flavored, which begs the question if it’s still water), and enough energy drinks in a single aisle, to seems, to fuel another Olympics. Yet the only containers that have a deposit are the carbonated variety: soda or beer.

So what do you think you’re most likely to see strewn on the streets? Of course, those bottles without a deposit.

Yes, there are plenty of litterbugs who don’t care about losing a nickel, but there are lots of folks who will pick up after them — if for no other reason than to grab the deposit money. But since their motivation is cash and not cleanup, they’re likely to leave the other stuff behind.

That’s why a proposal to expand the bottle bill to include those other containers — and recognize the evolution in the beverage industry — is so desperately needed.

Yet plans to expand the bill, supported by many legislators, have stalled. While the bill passed the Assembly, it hasn’t gotten to the floor in the Senate, mainly because former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno opposed it.

Well, thankfully, Bruno is gone, and his successor, Dean Skelos, is at least indicating he’ll allow the Senate to consider it.

It shouldn’t come to this. One reason the state Legislature is considered so dysfunctional is the power leaders wield. If Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver doesn’t like a bill, it won’t see the light of day — even if the majority members support it. Skelos could and should set the tone for a new day in Albany and let the bill move on for consideration by his colleagues.

Under Gov. David Paterson’s 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, which provides funding for land conservation and acquisition. The fee paid to stores taking empty bottle returns would increase from 2 to 3.5 cents apiece.

Everybody wins.

But there are compromises on the table that would weaken the bill. They include adding just water bottles to the list, instead of all non-carbonated drinks — a bad idea — and allowing beverage companies to continue keeping unclaimed deposits as opposed to giving it to the state. A reasonable change? Maybe. Though those companies’ obstructionist ways when it comes to cleaning up the landscape by broadening an already successful model hardly engenders any sympathies.

We urge Skelos to allow the legislation to move forward for debate. In the end, we hope the bill — assuming it reaches a vote — is not diluted so much that it fails to have an impact on the ever-increasing problem of roadside litter.


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