March 4, 2009
From Bottles and Nickels, More Millions?
MOST people groan at the thought of hauling their returnable bottles to the supermarket. Margo LaCarrubba considers it a gratifying domestic adventure.
First of all, Ms. LaCarrubba, 58, of Huntington, gets rid of the three bags of plastic bottles that accumulate every few weeks from her family’s seltzer habit. Second, she enjoys time with her daughter, Elise, 16, who gets to keep the deposit money. Finally, Ms. LaCarrubba said she liked knowing the bottles would not be joining others slung out a car window. “I hate seeing bottles on the side of the road,” she said.
Since 1982, a 5-cent deposit required in New York on plastic bottles and aluminum cans for carbonated drinks has reduced litter, state and environmental officials said. And now the State Legislature is considering expanding the deposit to noncarbonated drink containers and changing who gets unclaimed deposit money — changes that those officials said would further encourage recycling and bring in millions more dollars for the state.
Ten other states also have container deposit programs, despite lobbying efforts against them by the beverage industry. According to the Container Recycling Institute, an environmental advocacy group, these measures have promoted recycling and reduced litter — 66 percent of deposit containers are returned nationwide, compared with 40 percent without deposits.
“It’s a money message,” said the institute’s executive director, Betty McLaughlin. “ ‘Hey, I’m not going to throw that away. That’s a nickel or a dime.’ ”
A proposal by Gov. David A. Paterson in his 2009-10 budget plan would expand the bottle law and change who receives unclaimed deposit money. Currently, the state’s bottle law covers carbonated drinks like beer or soda and lets beverage distributors keep the 5-cent deposits not turned in — $93 million a year, according to state estimates. The governor’s proposal would add the nickel deposit to noncarbonated drinks and send unclaimed deposits to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
The added millions would help close the state’s yawning budget deficit, government and environmental officials said. “What’s driving it this year is that the state needs money,” said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which supports the proposal. “The stars might be lining up.”
Robert K. Sweeney, a Babylon Democrat who heads the State Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee and has proposed a similar measure in the past, said Mr. Paterson’s proposal was one of many things being considered in his budget, which provides more incentive for it to be passed. Previous bills, like Mr. Sweeney’s own, have passed the Assembly but were not heard in the Senate.
The legislation is also of interest for those concerned about Long Island’s waterways and 400 miles of beaches. Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, said he finally understood the issue after wading waist deep into a bottle-clogged stream at the Roosevelt Preserve alongside the Meadowbrook Parkway during a cleanup effort last summer.
“It was like a light going on in my head,” he said. “There were literally thousands of bottles down there washed in from storm drains and creeks, and all of them were water bottles or nondeposit bottles.”
Mr. Suozzi said he believed an expanded deposit program was a good way to handle such trash. “Public policy driven by self-interest is the most effective policy,” he said.
For most people, the association with the state’s Returnable Container Act begins by feeding an empty bottle into a reverse vending machine at a supermarket or reclamation center. If returnable, the bottle drops into an internal bin to be crushed or ground into fragments. A slip of paper redeemable for cash inside the store pops out or coins drop into a payout slot.
The money comes from retailers, who pay beverage distributors the 5-cent deposit when they buy the drink and get the money back from the distributors when they turn the bottles in. In New York, about 70 percent of returnable bottles are brought back, according to Nypirg. That has resulted in 90 billion containers recycled and 6 million tons of glass, aluminum and plastic kept out of landfills since the bill was passed 27 years ago, Nypirg officials said.
What no one anticipated then was the explosion of unfizzy drinks not covered by the deposit incentive — like bottled water, fruit juice and sports drinks — which now make up almost a third of the beverage market. Each year, nearly 2.5 billion bottles of water are sold in New York, Ms. Haight said.
Another significant proposed change involves the unreturned nickels pocketed by the beverage distributors. If noncarbonated drinks also required deposits, the amount retained by distributors would climb to $118 million from the $93 million now retained without changing who gets the money, the state said. The Container Recycling Institute, which calculates the figures another way, says the amount kept now by distributors would jump to $218 million from $144 million.
The proposal would also increase the handling fee paid to grocery stores and redemption centers to 3.5 cents per container from 2 cents to offset the cost of the new wave of returnable bottles.
Some in the beverage industry said the proposed changes disproportionately burden distributors, especially since bottles and cans account for only 3 percent of the waste stream.
“It’s just bad public policy,” said John Pierce, a spokesman for New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, a coalition of large and small businesses including convenience and grocery stores. “It doesn’t make sense from an environmental standpoint because it ignores most of the problem.”
That is seconded by Scott Vitters, global director of sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola, who said, “To us, it’s a 20th-century solution for a 21st-century problem.”
Mr. Vitters said he would like more attention paid to expanded municipal curbside pickup programs that would recycle all types of waste, not just bottles. Another possible comprehensive solution, he said, was an approach like that of RecycleBank, a company begun in Philadelphia and spreading to other states, that weighs recyclable material at curbside and gives households credit toward coupons good at stores like Home Depot and Starbucks.
Ms. McLaughlin of the Container Recycling Institute said that while curbside collection was fine, bottled water and soft drinks need special attention because they are usually consumed and the containers thrown away on the go. “People don’t empty shampoo bottles when they’re driving down the street and throw them out the window,” she said.
Most Long Island municipalities do not separate return bottles from the recycling bin, but instead turn over the contents to private recycling businesses, most of which sell the entire load for scrap, said Pete Sidote, owner of Recycling in Communities Inc. in Brentwood. Mr. Sidote’s company is one of the few that does weed out and redeem returnable bottles in material it receives, mainly from the Town of Islip and a few waste disposal firms.
“It’s labor intensive,” he said of the process. “Most towns, if it’s not cost effective for them to take the bottles out, they would rather haul them off to a landfill.”
Both sides agree that recycling is an ideal way to eliminate waste and keep bottles out of landfills. This is what goes on at places like Pure Tech Plastics, in Farmingdale, one of only two plastic-recycling plants in the state.
Inside is a Willy Wonka-like environment filled with bottles that have been sorted, pulverized and washed. The purified result is melted, turned into long, clear strands of plastic and chopped into flake that resembles mounds of tiny diamonds. This is trucked to large-scale manufacturers to be turned once more into bottles or clear plastic containers like those used for strawberries.
“Plastic in a landfill,” said the plant’s general manager, George Smilow, shaking his head. “What a waste.”