March 5, 2009
Can Bottles and Nickels Turn to Millions?
WITH two teenage children, and the taste for fizzy drinks that comes with them, Becky Salko rarely leaves a refundable can or bottle unredeemed.
Though her take from hauling the empty cans and bottles to her local supermarket — from 85 cents to $2.50 a visit — doesn’t go far, Ms. Salko, 49, a Larchmont preschool teacher, said there was no good reason to leave behind the containers and the 5 cents each that comes with returning them to the store.
“I take every possible bottle back to Stop & Shop, scrunch them and use the money from them to food shop,” she said. “To me it just feels like free money.”
The load of cans and bottles toted to supermarkets each week could get heavier under a plan to expand the bottle redemption program included in Gov. David A. Paterson’s 2009-10 budget proposal.
The proposal to expand the state Bottle Bill, which since 1982 has required a 5-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda cans and bottles, would require vendors to also charge a 5-cent deposit on the three billion bottles and cans of water, sports drinks, iced teas and juices that New Yorkers consume each year. Dairy products, infant formulas, wine and gallon-sized containers would be exempt.
Mr. Paterson’s proposal also calls for beverage distributors to transfer the millions of dollars in unredeemed deposits to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund rather than keep them, as they do now. Similar bills passed the Assembly in recent years but were not heard in the Senate. But Mr. Paterson’s proposal is one of many things being considered in his budget plan, providing more incentive for it to be passed, said Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, a Babylon Democrat who heads the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.
Supporters hail the proposed changes as a way to improve recycling rates while adding to state coffers. But opponents, including beverage manufacturers and distributors and large retail chains, say the proposal places an undue and expensive burden on their industries to collect, refund and recycle bottles and cans.
The proposal would mean about $118 million next year for the Environmental Protection Fund, up from $93 million, according to state estimates. (The Container Recycling Institute, which calculates the figures another way, says the amount would jump to $218 million from $144 million.)
The Environmental Protection Fund pays for programs like land acquisitions and waterfront revitalizations and finances zoos and farmland protection.
The proposal would have far-reaching environmental benefits, as people are apt to recycle bottles when there is money attached and, under the current law, nonredeemable bottles make up a disproportionately large percentage of litter found in parks, streets and riverbanks, said Pete Grannis, commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Since the bottle law took effect 27 years ago, more than 70 percent of beer and soda containers — 90 billion bottles and cans — have been recycled, he said. (Only about 38 percent of cans and bottles are recycled in states without bottle bills, said Judith Enck, Mr. Paterson’s deputy secretary for the environment.)
“It really does provide an incentive for recycling, and I do believe it’s pretty clear that the original bill didn’t contemplate the drinking habits of today’s world,” said Assemblyman Adam Bradley, a Democrat from White Plains. “Everybody drank soda.”
County officials say the governor’s proposal also promotes their environmental agenda. Susan Tolchin, the deputy county executive, said that while the proposal’s impact on recycling in the county is uncertain, the benefits of reducing waste and sending much-needed money to the state are clear.
But opponents said that the measure would cost consumers more and could have ramifications for Westchester beyond the potential for increasing the price of bottled drinks. The bottle bill proposal, along with Mr. Paterson’s proposed 18 percent tax on nondiet sodas, has the Pepsi Bottling Group considering moving its headquarters from Somers to Connecticut, taking more than 1,000 jobs with it.
“Essentially what we’ve created is a tax,” said Jonathan M. Pierce, a spokesman for Real Recycling Reform, which opposes the bill. The group includes representatives of Snapple, which is headquartered in White Plains; the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, which represents the grocery industry; the New York State Restaurant Association; and distributors who work for Heineken USA, based in White Plains.
Mr. Pierce said that the money kept by distributors is used to finance the deposit, redemption and recycling program to begin with and that beverages would ultimately cost more, possibly as much as 15 cents per bottle, if the proposal became law.
Although consumers would still be able to get back 5 cents a bottle, the rest would be needed to meet the increased cost of operating a broader bottle-redemption program, Mr. Pierce said.
“It’s going to increase the cost of doing business in New York,” he said, “and it’s going to increase the cost of a trip to the grocery store.”
SUPPORTERS dispute that contention, saying the only legitimate cost increase associated with the proposal would be 1.5 cents per bottle — the handling fee distributors must pay retailers to collect, refund and recycle the bottles would increase to 3.5 cents from 2 cents.
“That’s totally at the whim of the companies,” Ms. Enck said. “There is no way it’s going to cost 10 cents a bottle to handle this.”
As the program works now, distributors charge the 5-cent deposit per can or bottle to stores, which then charge consumers that amount. Consumers can take empty bottles and cans back to the store in exchange for the refund.
Stores get their deposits, plus the 2-cent-a-container handling fee, when they return the bottles and cans either to the distributor or to a private company, which many large supermarkets use.
In addition to unclaimed deposits, distributors also get to keep money earned from selling bottles and cans to recycling companies, which often prefer material collected from redemption systems over curbside pickup because it tends to be mixed with fewer nonrecyclables.
Retailers say there are hidden costs in the return system, like setting aside space for redemption machines, sanitation costs and paying staff to keep that space maintained and lighted.
Not all business leaders agree that the proposed changes would cost them.
Peter Sobol, legislative liaison for the Empire State Beer Distributors Association, said the neighborhood beer and soda stores that his group represents support Governor Paterson’s proposal as long as the handling fee stores receive is increased to meet costs. He called it unconscionable for distributors to keep unredeemed deposits when the economy is in shambles.
“Not many are sharing in that pot,” Mr. Sobol said. “At a time when everything is being cut back — health care, education — for the state not to grab these unredeemed nickels just doesn’t make sense.”
Ms. Salko, the Larchmont teacher and recycler, said she firmly believed that attaching money to recycling made it more attractive, particularly for children like her son, Michael, 14, who takes a recyclable water bottle to school daily.
Mr. Pierce said he does not buy that argument, saying the state is more interested in recouping money from unredeemed deposits than promoting environmental responsibility. If more and more people recycle, he said, there will be little money left for the state to claim.
Ms. Enck, however, said losing cash to high recycling rates is the least of her worries.
“We would love to have that problem,” she said.
Kate Stone Lombardi contributed reporting.