May 27, 2009
A Bottle Bill That Will Rot Your Teeth
THIRTY-EIGHT years ago, Oregon passed America’s first bottle deposit law, leading the way for states like New York and Connecticut to enact their own bills to reduce litter from single-serving containers. Those first laws, aimed at soft drinks and beer, then the most prevalent canned and bottled beverages, succeeded spectacularly, generating redemption rates reaching 70 percent.
But today the average person disposes of nearly 300 pounds of other kinds of packaging every year, and we need to expand and update New York’s bottle deposit law to cover beverages like bottled water, tea and energy drinks. At the same time, we need to make sure that the law supports rather than competes with curbside recycling.
A good new deposit bill could encourage recycling of new classes of beverage bottles and also provide financing for curbside programs that capture other kinds of recyclable waste, like juice cartons, ketchup bottles and mayonnaise jars. These are all made from the same plastic and glass as soda, beer and water bottles, yet fewer than one in five of them are being recycled. Since such containers are not subject to deposit laws, their recycling is driven only by moral imperative or local ordinances, and these incentives function best when supported by robust curbside recycling programs or other easy recycling options.
Unfortunately, the New York Legislature passed a bottle law last month that not only fails to accomplish these goals but will actually harm the recycling programs New York has. It is an ugly sausage that was cooked up by lobbyists for makers of sugared drinks and their allies in the Legislature. Instead of requiring deposits for all the new beverage categories, as Gov. David Paterson originally proposed, New York’s new bottle law covers bottled water only — unless that water contains added sugar.
That’s not a misprint. The Legislature, which began the year promising to lead national efforts against obesity and diabetes, exempted from the deposit law all noncarbonated beverages that contain added sugar. That means consumers are expected to pay more for zero-calorie choices than they will for sugar-filled options like teas and sports and juice drinks. The markup will encourage millions of New Yorkers, and especially price-sensitive populations like the poor and children, to consume sugar-spiked beverages instead of water.
This is not the only problem with the new law. By removing water bottles from municipal recycling programs without replacing the critical revenue those containers now generate, the law will actually undermine recycling. And instead of directing the profits from unredeemed deposits to recycling programs, the new law will siphon money into the bottomless yaw of the state treasury.
In contrast, California’s bottle law, which was passed in 1986, applies to more beverage types and helps finance curbside recycling for nearly every household in the state. When Californians recycle their beverage containers at the curb, a portion of the redemption value (not paid to the consumer) is invested in community-based recycling.
I am both a water bottler and an environmental activist. My water company, Keeper Springs, donates all its profits to the protection of rivers and public water supplies. I am also committed to achieving zero waste through recycling. To get there we need bottle deposit laws that require all beverage makers to take responsibility for reaching the highest possible levels of recycling, and that finance the range of recycling options — drop-off centers, buy-back centers and curbside pick-up.
Keeper Springs has filed a declaration in support of a coalition of bottled water companies that have filed suit to keep New York’s new law from taking effect. (On Wednesday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the law from going into effect until the lawsuit can be resolved.)
The law is a boondoggle that will give sugared beverage producers an unfair market advantage while undermining convenient recycling programs. Governor Paterson and the Legislature should trash it and get to work on the bigger and better bottle bill that New York deserves.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an environmental lawyer and public health advocate.