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March 18, 2009

The Seattle Times

Crunch time at NY Capitol for measure to expand mandatory bottle deposits

Opponents of legislation to expand bottle deposits to water, juice and other non-carbonated drinks in New York have taken to the airwaves with an ad campaign saying the only significant result would be higher prices.


Opponents of legislation to expand bottle deposits to water, juice and other non-carbonated drinks in New York have taken to the airwaves with an ad campaign saying the only significant result would be higher prices.

Advocates, mainly environmentalists, said the measure will clean up tons of litter. They accuse big businesses like Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and supermarket chains of trying to buy defeat of the bill with the air time and more than $2 million they donated to lawmakers over the past two years.

The fight intensified this year with the shift in control of the state Senate, where expanded bottle deposits repeatedly stalled under a longtime Republican majority after the state first started adding a nickel deposit on bottles of soda and other carbonated beverages in 1982. Upstate Sen. Joseph Bruno, a powerful opponent of both the original bottle bill and subsequent enhancements, led that GOP majority for more than a decade.

Now Bruno has stepped down, and Democrats last fall won a narrow 32-30 majority. The Senate Democratic conference is expected to consider the expanded bottle bill within the next several days, but some of them are not on board. One approach is to include it in a massive budget bill.

"The Assembly of course has been and is supportive of the bottle bill," said Robert Sweeney, a Long Island Democrat who chairs the Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee. "As far as the budget, we have to learn where the Senate is, for sure, and whether the governor will continue to be supportive in the budget process."

The Democrat-controlled Assembly has passed the expanded bottle bill before, and Democratic Gov. David Paterson put it in his budget for 2009-2010 to reduce litter and raise $118 million.

Sweeney noted that despite Paterson's early backing, expanded deposits got dropped from the budget last year.

Among the issues are unclaimed deposits — which the bottling companies now keep for soda and Paterson has proposed taking — a 1.5 cent increase in the bottle handling fee and questions about the capacity of convenience stores, bodegas and supermarkets to handle dirty bottles.

Bottled water, iced tea, juice, sports drinks and other non-carbonated beverages now constitute more than one quarter of beverage sales and more than half of the containers littering New York's shoreline, according to state conservation officials.

John Pierce, spokesman for a coalition of beverage makers, distributors and grocers that oppose the expansion, said the group backs better municipal recycling, with bins near trash receptacles at parks, beaches and other public spots.

According to the coalition, New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, the legislation will raise the average retail cost per beverage container by 15 cents, including the nickel deposit. The businesses say bottle recycling already costs the industry millions of dollars a year in New York.

The New York Public Interest Research Group's analysis of campaign finance records shows bottle bill opponents gave $2,075,951 in campaign contributions in the last two-year election cycle — mainly to political parties, the largest share to Senate Republicans. Bill supporters donated $592,547.

"I think we're close to getting it passed this year. That's why the business opponents are fighting so hard," said Laura Haight, NYPIRG senior environmental associate. Though Albany is "a pay-to-play system," she said what happens with the bottle bill now will be "a test."

Pierce declined to say how much was being spent on "a pretty sizable" TV and radio ad campaign that began upstate and is now airing downstate as well. He said there's "no way of telling" how much money a company is spending to lobby on any single issue and he declined to predict the bill's prospects.

"We're pretty confident that we're getting through to people on both sides of the aisle that are concerned with the issues that might come about as a result of this," Pierce said.

Both sides also disagree about public sentiment.

"Two-thirds of New Yorkers think it's a bad idea," Pierce said.

Environmentalists say polls they conducted in 2004 and 2008 show more than 80 percent popular support for expanded bottle deposits.


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