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Queens Chronicle

Pols Pass On Bottle Bill, But Enviros Keep Pushing

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Posted: Thursday, June 21, 2007 12:00 am

Queens residents can still count on getting a nickel back for every beer bottle they recycle — but they’ll likely have to wait a while longer before cashing in on their empty Perriers and Powerades.

With less than a week remaining in the legislative session in Albany, local environmentalists pounded the pavement last Friday, renewing calls for lawmakers to pass an expansion of the state’s bottle deposit laws. This, even as the bill’s chances were dwindling in the final hours of the Legislative session, which ended on June 21.

The current law places a 5-cent deposit on beer, soda and other carbonated beverages that are sold in New York. Albany passed that measure in 1982, despite fierce opposition from the bottling industry and food retailers, who worried about incurring heavy new costs from the law.

Now, environmentalists are calling on the legislature to extend the nickel deposit rule to noncarbonated beverages, like bottled water, iced tea, sports drinks and juices. The bill — dubbed the “bigger, better bottle bill” by its supporters — would also require bottlers to hand over all unclaimed deposit revenues to the state Environmental Fund.

Advocates say the measure would not only boost recycling, but create a generous new source of funding for statewide environmental initiatives. According to the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group, beverage companies retain $140 million a year in unclaimed deposits for carbonated beverages — cash that they believe should go into state coffers.

“When the first bill passed nobody had a clue that iced tea and bottled water would be such a huge industry today,” said Barbara Toborg, a member of the American Littoral Society’s Broad Channel chapter. “Now, every time you look down, you see an empty water bottle on the sidewalk.”

Despite the growing prevalence of such containers, advocates’ efforts to expand state deposit rules gone flat since the legislation was first introduced in 2002.

While Gov. Eliot Spitzer endorsed the measure in his January budget speech, the state Assembly has allowed it to languish in various committees, observers said. And in the Senate, Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R) has refused to even bring the legislation to a vote, arguing that such measures take a backseat to other more pressing issues, like campaign finance reform.

The bill’s opponents in the bottling industry, meanwhile, contend that the expanded law would create an onerous new tax on small food retailers and wholesalers. A nickel deposit on noncarbonated drinks, critics charged, could end up costing companies an additional 15 cents per bottle, when expenses like sorting and shipping are considered. And opponents in Albany, including Bruno, say those companies would pass the costs onto consumers.

Critics say the debate has been saddled by lobbyists and political contributions. According to a report by the nonprofit Common Cause, many of the bottle bill’s staunchest opponents in Albany are lining their campaign coffers with contributions from the bottling industry and their lobbyists. Between 2003 and 2006, groups opposed to the bill gave roughly $2.7 million in donations to candidates seeking statewide office, a recent report finds.

The watchdog also uncovered $6.3 million in donations to lobbyists for the Food Industry Alliance of Anheuser-Busch. Most of the cash went to the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, headed by Bruno.

As of press time, the bill was still pending in the capitol. But even if lawmakers pass it up in the dwindling hours of the current session, backers of the measure are confident they’ll be able to revive it, when the legislature reconvenes for a special session over the summer, if not before then.

“Twenty-five years ago, nobody would have thought people would be drinking this much bottled water,” said state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose), an outspoken supporter of the new bill. “Today, it’s everywhere — which is something we can’t ignore. At this point, there’s too much pressure behind this issue for it to evaporate after Thursday, trust me.”

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