Op-ed column: Bottling up the Bigger Bottle Bill

Another legislative year has gone by and the Bigger Better Bottle Bill still has not been passed, al
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette
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Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette

Another legislative year has gone by and the Bigger Better Bottle Bill still has not been passed, although it did make it through the state Assembly.

The proposed bill would expand New York state’s current bottle bill by adding non-carbonated beverages such as bottled water, iced tea and sports drinks to the deposit law. According to NYPIRG, which has been advocating for the passage of an expanded bill, “This would result in nearly 3 billion additional bottles and cans returned and recycled each year, resulting in cleaner communities, more recycling, and savings for municipalities.”

While NYPIRG and other environmentalist groups are right in pushing for an expanded bill, I believe the proposed bill is flawed, and those flaws are responsible for its failure to become law several years in a row. Furthermore, inflexible attitudes by both environmentalists who support an expanded bill and business people who oppose it, make it certain that the bill will continue to be defeated.

Clarifying flaws

The proposed legislation goes too far in some areas and not far enough in others. Let me explain.

First, the bill does not include the large plastic beverage cups that people get from fast food restaurants and convenient markets. I find these along my road all of the time.

Secondly, the bill does not increase the amount of the deposit on returnable bottles and cans. The amount has been a nickel for 25 years. Most people won’t bend over to pick a nickel off the ground, and the nickel’s lack of value accounts for the many cans and bottles that are thrown out of car windows, left on beaches, etc.

I wrote a piece for The Sunday Gazette nearly 15 years ago in which I argued that the bottle deposit should be increased to a dime.

Now I would argue that it should be increased to a quarter. (Vermont and Maine already require 15-cent deposits on some liquor containers, while Michigan requires a 10-cent deposit on all bottles). People will think twice before leaving bottles behind if they are worth a quarter each, and if they do leave them behind, their value would give someone else an incentive to pick them up and return them. I think of that every time my wife and I shop at Aldi. The market requires a 25-cent deposit on a shopping cart; because of the deposit, Aldi does not need any employees to return shopping carts, and I have never seen a shopping cart left out in the Aldi lot.

Sticking point

This brings me to the one part of the proposed legislation that may be holding up the legislation more than any other. The legislation requires that all unredeemed deposits be turned over to the State Environmental Protection Fund. Currently the beverage industry keeps the money, which totals more than $100 million each year.

When Mario Cuomo was governor, he tried unsuccessfully for years to get his hands on those unclaimed nickels. I argued then that if the deposit was raised to a dime, both business and government could get a nickel each from the unclaimed deposits.

But if the deposit were raised even higher, the whole argument would be moot. There would be few or no unclaimed deposits. If you make the value of bottles and cans high enough, almost all of them will be returned.

And isn’t that the purpose of the bottle bill — to keep bottles off roadsides and out of landfills? In their eagerness to find a source of funding for environmentalist projects, environmentalists are looking at the current, and proposed, bottle bill as a source of income, rather than a means of helping the environment. New York state only has a 70.2 percent return rate on returnable bottles. We should be aiming for the high 90s. Raising the amount of the deposit will help meet that goal.

NYPIRG argues that several states already require the beverage industry to turn over unclaimed deposits. One of the states it mentions is Michigan, the first state to pass bottle bill legislation. What NYPIRG fails to point out is that Michigan has a 97.2 percent return rate on bottles (most likely due to the higher deposit it charges), leaving few nickels, or dimes, for the state and the beverage industry to fight over. Unclaimed deposits in Michigan total less than $10 million a year.

And Michigan does not take 100 percent of unclaimed deposits. It takes 75 percent, and allows the beverage industry to keep 25 percent. A similar compromise over unclaimed deposits might help steer New York state’s proposed legislation out of limbo.

All businesses affected by the bottle bill deserve to be compensated for any additional costs associated with returnable bottles and cans.

On the other hand, if the beverage industry is adequately compensated for expenses arising from the bottle bill and the proposed changes to it, then it will have no justifiable reason to oppose passage of the bill.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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