July 22, 2010
Paying deposit easier than getting it back
Paul and Mary Dolman drink a lot of bottled water, so having it delivered to their home outside the village of Ballston Spa was a real convenience.
Since Paul Dolman is disabled and uses a cane, hoisting the heavy bulk purchases from store to car and car to house wouldn't be as easy as it would be for some consumers.
The family's deliveries from Connecticut-based Crystal Rock, which also produces Vermont Pure spring water, usually included one or more of the company's 5-gallon cooler-style jugs and, especially in the summer, a few hefty 24-count cases of the individual-size bottles.
Before New York's "bigger, better bottle bill" took effect a few months ago, they tossed the individual empties into their recycling bin for pickup. But when they made their last bulk buy -- perhaps in June, they think -- they noticed they were being charged the new 5-cent deposit on each container.
Once they realized they were paying the deposit, the Dolmans made it a point to place each empty bottle back in the cardboard flats in which they arrived. They set them aside for pickup, just as they did with the 5-gallon bottles.
It wasn't a big deal, since they already were in the habit of applying their refunds for the large jug deposits, which are assessed by the company, to the cost of their next delivery.
"I assumed the small bottles would work the same as the big bottles," Paul Dolman told me. "I had everything ready."
He was surprised, then, when the delivery driver refused to take back the small bottles and also declined to refund the deposits, totaling $1.20 per case, the Dolmans had paid. Instead, he recommended that they take the small bottles to Stewart's or Walmart for redemption.
Mary Dolman remembers thinking: "Well, I'll bet Stewart's and Walmart are just going to love this."
The Dolmans studied up on the provisions of the state's revised bottle law and found nothing indicating that a vendor who charged its customers the deposit could pass along the responsibility for refunding it and handling the empties to some other merchant.
In fact, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Web site includes this entry among frequently asked questions about the bottle law:
Q: Are there any dealers that are exempt from the law?
A: No. If a dealer sells carbonated beverages and/or water, then the dealer must charge the deposit and provide refunds for returns on those brands that they sell.
Even if the Dolmans' did take the bottles to Walmart or Stewart's looking for deposit refunds, it's not clear that they could collect, since retailers are not required to accept brands that they do not sell. Stewart's does not sell Vermont Pure or Crystal Rock water, and Paul Dolman said he has not seen the brands at the Walmart where he usually shops.
"It's the principle of the thing," said Mary. "If you are not taking the bottles back, don't collect the deposits."
One of my first calls while researching the Dolmans' account was to Laura Haight at the New York Public Interest Research Group. She was a leader in the campaign to expand the bottle bill and continues to advocate for compliance and enforcement.
From Haight, I learned that the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany also was having trouble with pick-up of the Crystal Rock/Vermont Pure empties.
When I first checked on Tuesday, Honest Weight had, perhaps, 100 bottles in two large trash bags awaiting pick-up, said Jennifer Grainer, a market staff member. There had been more, but another vendor agreed to accept them, she said.
After co-op managers complained that the company wasn't complying with the new law, Crystal Rock promised to make arrangements with a third-party pickup service, but Grainer told me Wednesday afternoon that the co-op was still waiting.
The news for Honest Weight got better a few hours after I spoke with Crystal Rock President and CEO Peter K. Baker and explained the troubles the Dolmans and the co-op were experiencing.
"We just got a phone call from Vermont Pure Water letting us know there will be someone here to pick up our bottles tomorrow," Grainer said.
I was dismayed, however, to learn that the Dolmans' situation won't be so easily resolved.
While Crystal Rock is required to refund the deposits and accept returns the empties from its customers, it seems the company is not required to do that in the same location that the original transaction occurred -- that is, not necessarily at the Dolmans' home.
"The dealer selling directly to the consumer would only have an obligation to accept and redeem bottles at their place of business," DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren said.
In the case of Crystal Rock, it's not clear where that place might be. The company headquarters is in Watertown, Conn., but Baker said the company has bottling operations in Halfmoon and Schenectady for spring water brought in from Vermont. Perhaps there are warehouses or other distribution centers in the region, as well.
Still, it rather defeats the point of having the water delivered to your residence if you have to make a special trip to redeem the empties someplace else.
Wren said DEC is aware of the issue with home-delivered bottles and is talking with officials at Crystal Rock, which merged with Vermont Pure in 2001.
"We're talking with the company about what they will do, what their responsibilities are and how they might facilitate collections and redemptions with their customers," she said.
Baker said someone from Crystal Rock also would reach out to the Dolmans.
"We would certainly like to accommodate them if we can," he said.