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October 31, 2009

The Buffalo News

New bottle bill takes effect

More than 2 billion additional bottles could be recycled annually in New York State, thanks to an expanded bottle bill that takes effect today.

The first update of the 1982 "Bottle Bill," which provides a 5-cent deposit for bottled water containers, passed the State Legislature this year and survived court challenges, despite industry warnings of higher prices, retail hardships and negligible environmental impact.

The new law was hailed as one of the most important environmental advances in years, but also will be used to help bail the state out of financial problems.

Supporters say it is a sensible and long overdue recycling measure, despite a number of bottled drinks, including sugar-added Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater, being stripped from the legislation.

"What's great about it is that people will see fewer bottles littering parks, beaches, roads and farms. There will be an immediate and visible benefit," said Laura Haight of New York Public Interest Research Group. NYPIRG led the effort that included environmental organizations, the League of Women Voters, adopt-a-highway groups and the state Farm Bureau.

For consumers, the bottle bill will require paying an additional nickel at the register — equating to $1.20 per case — and provide more opportunities to redeem bottles.

For retailers, it means finding more space for empties, worrying about pests and, in the short term, retooling registers and redemption vending machines for new UPC codes on bottles sold in New York State.

"With this bill, the state will be creating what can only be described as a major inconvenience for Wilson Farms and other convenience stores alike, as we will be forced to accept an expanded list of returnable products," said spokeswoman Kim Tylec.

The law will send 80 percent of unclaimed deposits to the state's general fund instead of the Environmental Protection Fund, as originally proposed. One study says it will transfer $218 million to the state that used to go to bottlers and distributors.

"It's just another way of taxing the people and inconveniencing them. It's definitely a money grab," said Frank S. Budwey, owner of Budwey's Supermarkets in Buffalo, North Tonawanda and Newfane.

"The state's inability to cut the size and cost of government continues to show up in legislation like this," said Craig Turner, senior director of public policy for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "They need to cut the size of government rather than finding new ways to make money."

It's not only industry that's concerned about returning the funds to state coffers. Susan Attridge, chairwoman of Northeast Southtowns Solid Waste Board in Erie County, said some of the money should be used to fund recycling coordinator positions and household waste collection events now in jeopardy because of the state's financial crisis.

Budwey said the UPC codes now required also will present hardships for warehouses, like the one he uses, that send products across state lines. Those costs, he said, will eventually get passed on to customers.

The new law does boost compensation to retailers by raising the handling fee for returns from 2 cents to 3½ cents per bottle, and it adds provisions to encourage more redemption centers.

In the short term, prices on bottles without the UPC codes are expected to drop as retailers clear out their stock before a grace period provided by Gov. David A. Paterson ends Nov. 8.

"We'll have to discount to blow them all out," Budwey said.

Legislation for an expanded bottle bill had been tried since 2002, regularly passing the Democratic-controlled Assembly but getting grounded in the Republican-controlled Senate. That changed this year when the Senate came under Democratic control.

Proponents originally included in the legislation other non-carbonated beverages — sugar-added water, sports drinks, energy drinks and sugared teas — but couldn't get their inclusion past industry objections.

Still, with water, sugar-free flavored water and nutritionally-enhanced water under a gallon in size included, nearly 90 percent of New York's beverage containers are now covered in the bottle bill. That makes New York the sixth state to include water bottles in its container deposit laws.

The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates 90 billion soda and beer containers have been recycled since the bottle bill passed 27 years ago, reducing roadside litter by some 70 percent. Proponents see similar benefits with the expanded bill.

The Container Recycling Institute estimates 3.2 billion water bottles were sold in 2006 in New York State, with less than 20 percent of them being recycled. The bill, it says, means more than 2 billion additional bottles could be recycled and kept out of landfills and incinerators. The energy savings, it calculated, would be enough to power 43,660 households for a year.

"This is a tremendous benefit to the environment," said Brian Smith, Western New York program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

However, Jim Rogers, president of the Food Industry Alliance based in Albany, said only a small amount of municipal solid waste comes from drink containers. The bottle bill, he said, was a "pretty expensive way to go about reducing litter."

Wegmans spokeswoman Ann McCarthy said the grocery chain also was against the bottle bill's expansion on environmental grounds as well as economic ones.

"We were opposed to the expansion because we felt curbside recycling was a better and more convenient option for customers," McCarthy said.

Erin Moscati, a board member of Buffalo First, said she hoped the new law would lead people to question the environmental consequences of buying bottled water.

"We have great municipal water here we can use as opposed to supporting an industry that a lot of times takes municipal water and packages it and transports it, adding a whole other level of environmental impact," Moscati said.

State Sen. Antoine Thompson, who chairs the Senate's Environmental Conservation Committee, and a key backer of the legislation, said lobbying was "intense" to block the legislation.

"We pushed hard, and it was not easy. This was one of the hardest things to do in the entire budget because of the [millions over the years] spent by the beer, beverage and water industries."

Thompson said opponents have yet to grasp "the nation is going green."

Haight said with the issue of unclaimed deposits now settled, the groundwork has been laid to eventually expand the law once more to include the remaining non-carbonated beverages.

"I can't imagine it being this hard to get the additional beverages," Haight said of the seven-year effort. "We did most of what we need to do this round. Hopefully in the next couple of years we'll go back and get the rest."


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