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January 27, 2009

The Buffalo News

‘Better Bottle Bill’ a bitter pill for grocers
Critics call it unfair, ‘another hidden tax’

Gov. David A. Paterson’s proposal to require deposits on non-carbonated drinks isn’t sitting well with local grocers.

The “Bigger, Better Bottle Bill,” which would add a five-cent deposit to juice, iced tea, bottled water and sports drink containers sold in the state of New York, has been touted as a way to increase recycling and reduce litter.

Now, allowing the state to collect the unclaimed deposits is being pushed as a way to generate $207 million toward closing the $15.4 billion budget deficit.

But supermarket owners and the beverage industry call it an unfair cash grab at their expense and want the idea canned.

“It would be a tremendous cost,” said Frank Budwey, owner of Budwey’s Supermarkets. “They’re doing this under the guise of being good environmentalists, but it’s just another hidden tax.”

Grocers said new machines needed to accept the additional and more varied returns start at $80,000 a pop. Then there’s the increased space, labor, sanitation and bookkeeping required to implement the change.

Tops Markets, for example, already processes 19 million containers per month. With grocers expecting a 30 percent increase in volume, more space would be needed to accommodate more machines, longer lines and the storage of more containers. Space restrictions would especially strain small convenience stores and gas stations.

Labor costs are also expected to rise as more workers are needed to empty machines, pick up loads of containers, man counters and wipe down the bottle return areas — notorious for soiling quickly and potentially attracting insects and vermin.

“It seems simple. You pay five cents at the grocery store, you get five cents back,” said Jonathon Pierce, spokesman for New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, a band of retailers, labor unions and businesses opposing the bill. “It’s much more complicated behind the machines.”

The coalition estimates the program would add $190 million to the current $125 million price tag retailers pay to run the bottle return program.

With the program already in the red by $30 million and grocers operating on razor thin margins, the costs would likely be recouped through a 10-cent-per-unit hike in beverage pricing.

The New York Public Interest Research Group said the bill is a natural extension of the original 1982 bottle bill which covered beer and soda containers. It merely adds classes of beverages such as energy drinks that have skyrocketed in popularity since then, about three billion of which go unrecycled annually.

But critics said the move is not cost effective or comprehensive enough and unfairly targets the beverage industry.

“Drink containers account for less than three percent of waste in New York,” said Pierce. “Why aren’t we concentrating on the other 97 percent of the problem?”

Instead, the coalition proposes a broader curbside recycling program it said would spread the cost more evenly among retailers, government, vendors, and manufacturers and do more to encourage recycling of a wider variety of materials. It calls for more recycle bins next to garbage cans in public places; “single- stream” recycling where everything from juice bottles to hamburger wrappers could be thrown in a single bin and sorted at facilities, as well as more environmental awareness programs.

The expanded bottle-deposit bill was passed by the Assembly three times in the past four years, but stumbled before the full Legislature. Its latest fate is expected to be decided April 1.

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