The state Legislature is negotiating an expansion to the state’s Bottle Bill to include noncarbonated beverages such as iced teas, sports drinks, energy drinks and sugar-added waters. If the expanded bill passes, consumers will have to pay an additional 5 cents for those beverages, which can be redeemed by recycling the bottles.
“It’s building on a system we’ve had for 30 years,” Laura Haight, a senior associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group, said. “The opportunity came up this year, through the budget process, for further expansion.”
The process began when Gov. Cuomo released the “Cleaner, Greener, NY Act of 2013,” a proposal that includes changes to the present Bottle Bill which covers beer, soda, wine coolers and water.
The proposal would generate $4 million dollars for the Environmental Protection Fund in the next year by increasing enforcement of the current Bottle Bill and combating fraud.
Some potential fraud issues include stores purchasing beverages in New Jersey, where there is no bottle deposit, and illegally reselling them in New York, as well as people scanning UPC codes from recycling bottles and attaching them to bottles that are not eligible for recycling, according to Haight.
“It’s a small amount [of money], but it’s an opportunity for someone to abuse the system,” Haight said.
However, 30 environmental groups, including NYPIRG, circulated a memo calling on the governor, Senate and Assembly to support the Bottle Bill expansion and reject the changes proposed by Cuomo.
“Some of these changes will make it harder for consumers to return their empty containers and could have the effect of raising more money for the state by reducing the number of bottles and cans that are recycled. This is contrary to the intent of the Bottle Bill,” according to the memo.
For example, the governor’s proposal would expand a loophole that would reduce the take-back requirement for all stores under 10,000 square feet in New York to 72 bottles per day, down from the present 240.
Another provision mandates that stores must reject containers if they are not “reasonably clean.” Presently, it is up to storeowners to decide to reject dirty or damaged containers. NYPIRG’s concern is that the “reasonably clean” standard is too subjective and would result in fewer bottles being collected.
Haight also explained that some of the changes might adversely impact bottle and can redemption centers, which are common throughout upstate New York. Hundreds of new redemption centers opened in 2009, when the handling fee increased from 2 cents to 3.5 cents per bottle. The centers make a living off of these fees and try to collect as many bottles as possible. According to a NYPIRG survery, since 2009, many of the centers hired new workers, increased employee wages and benefits and opened new storefronts.
According to the Container Recycling Institute, expanding the Bottle Bill to cover the additional noncarbonated beverages would increase the number of containers covered by 14 percent. If redemption rates stay the same, that would generate an additional $15 million a year in revenue for the EPF from any unclaimed deposits. The current overall redemption rate is 66 percent, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The DEC reports that since its implementation in 1983, the Bottle Bill has reduced roadside litter by 70 percent, recycled 90 billion containers at no cost to local governments, saved 52 million barrels of oil, and eliminated 200,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year.
The groups support the proposals to transfer $15 million a year from the unclaimed container deposits to the EPF, which funds open space conservation, as well as any additional revenues.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) called the Bottle Bill “a welcome revenue stream,” noting that the EPF has been substantially reduced in recent years. Addabbo said the EPF is important to his district, which includes Jamaica Bay and the Rockaways.
Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) agreed. “The fund is vital to our quality of life in New York, ensuring that no matter what fiscal limit Albany may face in any given year, there are resources dedicated for programs that protect the quality of our air, water, and green space,” Hevesi said. He supports the assembly’s budget proposal.
Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) has not taken a stand for or against the bill. “I understand that those who advocate for it feel that it will have an environmental benefit, but I have to balance that with the impact to the individual consumer,” he said. “You’re taking money out of people’s pockets. [The bill] charges people more deposit and most people seldom regain it, so it amounts to a lost cost.”
“We oppose it because it’s another tax on products that people can buy,” Chris Gindlesperger, the senior director of public affairs for the American Beverage Association, said. “It singles out our products. There are better ways to promote recycling.”
Gindlesperger supports curbside recycling, where a lot of everyday items can be recycled. “Taken together, there is a greater impact on reducing energy and landfill space,” he said.
Return rates are much higher under the Bottle Bill, than with curbside recycling, according to Haight. New York City’s curbside recycling rate is only 15 percent, but she estimates that it’s about 50 to 60 percent with the Bottle Bill because of the 5-cent deposit.
Leaders of the Senate and Assembly are negotiating the state budget, which is due on April 1. Parts of the Bottle Bill expansion are included in both proposals, but it is unclear if they will be included in the final budget.
“As we’re going through the budget negotiations, no one is talking about the Bottle Bill,” Addabbo said. “It will be interesting to see how the bill evolves.”