August 27, 2008
Albany pinches pennies - deposit nickels pile up
While Governor Paterson and the state legislature have combed the budget, cutting aid to the City University of New York and imposing “savings” on Medicaid, an estimated $140 million a year is rolling off the table - all of it in nickels.
That’s how much New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) estimates the beverage industry keeps in un-redeemed bottle and can deposits each year.
New York State’s Returnable Container Act, passed in 1982, put a five-cent deposit on carbonated beverage containers (soda and beer), but not on many other drink containers. Unlike many other states, the current law doesn’t require the industry to turn over un-refunded deposits to the state.
Since the time the law was passed, the market for bottled water, juices and other drinks has become huge, and many millions of non-deposit bottles and cans find their way into the waste stream.
An amendment to the deposit law, known as “The Bigger Better Bottle Bill,” would require the deposit on nearly all retail beverage containers sold in the state - and force beverage manufacturers and distributors to turn the unclaimed deposits over to the State Environmental Fund.
NYPIRG estimated that nearly 3 billion bottles and cans of waters, teas and sports drinks are not recycled each year this state, winding up in the trash or as environmental pollution.
The bill was first introduced in May of last year. It had 59 various sponsors in the Assembly, including 12 of the 18 members from Queens and four sponsors in the Senate, including Queens Senator Frank Padavan.
Numerous groups including the Container Recycling Institute and NYPIRG support the measure, citing data showing 97 percent of deposit containers being recovered and only 20 percent of non-deposit beverage containers being recycled.
Proponents contend that by collecting a deposit on virtually all drink containers in New York, consumers would be inclined to redeem them for the deposit.
Moreover, they suggest that the legions of people who collect deposit containers for redemption would purge them from the environment once they had value.
In strong opposition to the bill is a group called “New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform,” which is a “coalition of New York businesses, labor unions and retailers.”
Calling the proposed legislation a “bottle tax,” the group charges that if a five cent deposit is imposed, “The average price for each bottle and can sold in stores will rise by 15 cents.” They translate this 15 cent increase into a 72 percent increase in the cost of a $4.99 case of 24 juice bottles.
However, the text of the bill only mentions a “handling fee” of three cents, paid to the businesses that redeem the bottles, in addition to the five cent per container deposit.
Detractors also point out that the expanded deposit program would unfairly impact small store owners in inner cities and poorer neighborhoods, who are less able to handle the empty containers.
Despite protestations from lobbying groups, on Wednesday, June 11, after nearly a year of procedure and three hours of floor debate, the Assembly passed the bill in a bi-partisan vote of 91 to 54.
Assemblymember Jose Peralta was the only member of the Queens delegation to vote against it, part of a curious alignment of some upstate Republicans and some Democrats from dense urban districts.
With barely three weeks left in the legislative session, the Senate referred the bill to its Environmental Conservation Committee, where it remains today.
“We’re working hard to get this bill out of committee,” said Padavan, who was one of the sponsors of the original Returnable Containers Act. “When we passed the law originally,” he observed, “Who knew that one day, people would be paying for all those bottles of water that cost more than milk?”
Padavan conceded that there was opposition. “The issue is the perceived increase in cost to the consumer, although you get the money back at redemption,” he said.
“This is absolutely the wrong time to put a tax on our food,” said James Rogers, president and CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State. “This scheme is just about raising money, not improving the environment.”
Padavan however, pointed out that, “there is particular consideration for these containers’ contribution to debris that has to be collected and disposed of by local governments.”
He also observed that “we have the best tap water in the world,” and there would be both an economic and environmental benefit if, “more people [drank it] instead of buying bottled water,” much of which is no more than filtered tap water.