EDITORIAL: Time to make hard choices on expansion of bottle bill

New report gives information that lawmakers need to make decision

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

The report is out.

Now it’s time to act.

But if state lawmakers, local government recycling managers, environmental groups and those in the business of selling beverages at the retail, distribution and manufacturing level were looking for a new state-sponsored report on expanding New York’s bottle bill to make the decision clear for them, they’ll be sorely disappointed.

The 64-page report — issued last week by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Pollution Prevention Institute — provides a lot of information for lawmakers to ponder.

It includes potential options for expanding the bill; contains plenty of statistics about what kind of impact expanding the bill to wine and liquor bottles and other plastic containers such as water bottles and soda cups, will have; highlights the positions of opponents and supporters of expansion; gives examples of how other states have successfully addressed the issue; and addresses the costs and logistical challenges related to various options. 

The comprehensive report should give them enough of what they need to formulate a policy that leads to more beverage containers being taken out of the environment and repurposed through recycling.

It gives lawmakers information. But it doesn’t tell them what to do.

The challenges essentially come down to a few key issues:

* Taking glass from liquor and wine bottles out of the waste stream will help municipal recycling operations, because they don’t get much of a return on the glass compared to the costs of collecting them. But forcing independent wine stores, which already are heavily taxed and regulated, to get involved in collecting and recycling their bottles will be costly and logistically challenging. They’ll have to buy recycling machines, have a place to store bottles and have employees take on a new task. That’s easier and cheaper for a large grocery chain than a small independent liquor store.

* Expanding the bottle bill to include plastic soda cups, juice boxes, noncarbonated-drink containers and other items not covered by the existing law will get more plastics out of the environment and out of municipal waste recycling operations. But it also would hurt those operations because those types of bottles provide a decent return that helps support their operations. If people are returning more bottles for the deposit, will they continue to support single-stream recycling efforts? Of if they have to bring some bottles back to one location and some to another, will they continue to bother?

* How will the money from unreturned bottles be distributed in the future in light of the changes to the system? In the past, distributors kept the money. In 2009, the state started taking 80 percent. The changes could raise costs for municipal recycling systems, private recycling operations, liquor and wine stores, and those companies that pick up recyclables, among others. Maybe the state will have to raise the 5-cent deposit, which has been unchanged since the original law took effect in 1983. The report says higher deposits in other states have resulted in higher rates of bottle returns. And more money coming in means more money that can be redistributed to offset the new expenses. But fewer unclaimed deposits means less money for the government.

While it would still be wise for lawmakers to further investigate the impacts of various options, including holding hearings with the affected parties, they seem to have enough information on the pros and cons from this report to move ahead with expansion.

Earlier this year, we encouraged lawmakers not to rush into a hasty decision on this complex issue. But now that they have new information at hand, it’s time to zero in on a plan for expanding the bottle bill.

As we said, it won’t be easy. But for the sake of the environment, it’s time to move forward.

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