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June 4, 2009

The Daily Gazette

Revisit bottle bill revisions this session

It was clear, almost from the day Gov. David Paterson signed it two months ago, that New York’s revised returnable bottle law was flawed. But Paterson — who introduced and quickly marshaled the revisions past lobbyists and lawmakers during this year’s budget negotiations — didn’t get around to addressing the problems until two weeks ago, and the Legislature has been unable to reach a consensus on resolving the industry’s objections. So now a federal judge has done so — but not satisfactorily, as far as state taxpayers or the environment are concerned.

It was understandable last Wednesday when U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa temporarily blocked implementation of the law’s June 1 starting date, because its requirement on such short notice for a state-specific bar code would have wreaked havoc on beverage bottlers and retailers.

But now Griesa has suspended implementation of the law until next April — giving the industry 10 extra months to comply. That’s way more time than is necessary and doesn’t even address Griesa’s earlier objection that the bar code requirement might violate the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause.

As recently as a week ago, the governor and legislators all agreed — independently, anyway — that the bar code requirement could be delayed until October or later. But by failing to take decisive action, they opened the door for this lawsuit to succeed.

Griesa’s ruling is obviously not the end of the world; but it will mean that an estimated 2 billion additional plastic water bottles will wind up in the waste stream — landfilled or thrown by the wayside — instead of recycled. It also means the state will be deprived of an estimated $115 million worth of additional unclaimed nickels; money used to balance this year’s budget. And this assumes that the delay will only be 10 months, that beverage/supermarket industry lobbyists won’t figure out a way to further undermine the law to keep it from ever being implemented. They got caught unawares by this spring’s rush job; that is unlikely to happen again.

If possible, the Legislature should, before adjourning, pass an amended version of the updated bill — much like the one Paterson and the Senate have proposed — that imposes deposit requirements on bottled water with 30 days’ notice but delays the bar code requirement for several months. Given that other states are in the process of imposing similar restrictions on bottled water, the anti-fraud provision may not even be necessary.


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