Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Old Whine, New Bottles

Let’s not harbor any illusions about the recent passage of a compromise version of the so-called ‘bigger better bottle bill’. The only ‘green’ that Governor Paterson is interested in here is the $200 million+ in unclaimed bottle deposits that the bill will transfer into state coffers. Not that that in and of itself is necessarily a bad thing, given the financial crisis facing our state, and the fact that there is no conceivable reason why this money shouldn’t be used to help stave off budget cuts or tax hikes.

The recently passed bill addresses several key aspects of New York’s deposit bottle recycling system. First and foremost, the bill places a 5-cent deposit on water bottles, i.e. the 12 oz. plastic containers that have been rapidly proliferating over the past ten years. Other provisions in the law include the transfer of 80% of unclaimed bottle deposits from the beverage industry to the state. The bill also increases the handling fee paid by the bottlers to stores and redemption centers from 2% to 3% and mandates New York State-specific UPC codes for ALL containers sold in the state to prevent out-of-state containers from being redeemed in New York (like in Seinfeld when Kramer and Newman tried to take a mail truck full of bottles to Michigan, where they pay out a ten cent redemption).

However, while the bill was heavily supported by environmental activists and public interest groups such as NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group) as a way to increase recycling and keep plastic bottles out of landfills, the beverage industry has fought the bill tooth and nail, mainly because they were afraid of losing the hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed container deposits.

It now appears that this industry is planning a risky gambit to stir up old fears that the new law will cost consumers, cause people to lose their jobs, and that the new law simply won’t work. These are the same old complaints that the beverage industry has been using to kill the bottle bill for the past ten years. Not to mention the fact that these are the same scare tactics they used in the early 1980s when the current deposit-recycling system was put into place.

But the beverage giants are merely drawing attention away from the plain fact that they are the ones responsible for the problem of container disposal in the first place as they are producing the containers. Deposit-based recycling systems insure that the industry bears some responsibility for taking out its own trash. Otherwise, there is no incentive to look into more environmentally neutral packaging and bottling methods, as the costs of disposing of containers are subsidized by taxpayers and built into state and municipal property taxes in the form of curbside recycling programs, street cleaning services and procuring new landfill capacities.

Another complaint designed to gain sympathy pits the new recycling regime against the mom-and-pop grocers and convenience stores, who critics claim, simply lack the space to accommodate all the containers. But before you shed a tear for the small corner store owner, consider the fact that virtually no one redeems bottles and cans at small grocers and convenience stores. They take them back to supermarkets which have separate redemption rooms and reverse vending machines.

While these larger-scale grocers will likely experience an uptick in container redemption, the notion that they will be unable to accommodate the increase is absurd. And so it goes for the rest of the unfounded claims that the new law will drive up the costs of bottled water and break the backs of bottlers and distributors.

This legislation is an important update to a valued recycling program that recognizes the changes that have taken place in consumer trends and is in fact long overdue. Hopefully, lawmakers will keep this new bill on track to become effective on June 1st and understand that the fear tactics are nothing but a desperate end game by the beverage industry to cling to millions of dollars in unclaimed deposits.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Sean, it's the same old power play, Government vs. Industry. You are correct in that it is not about recycling or the environment, it is about money, pure and simple. The choice we should have had was A- no new deposit law, no new cost to consumer, or B- Govt. gets deposit money, pisses it away, and increases cost to consumer. Too bad "consumer" had no say in the matter (you KNOW if this new deposit was voted upon, it would not have passed). So we get option B, no choice about it...
I like how you say “the beverage giants… are the ones responsible for the problem of container disposal in the first place.” Wow, what a relief! I’m glad that you and I and all the other consumers are not responsible for what we do with our empty containers. I’ll certainly be able to sleep better, now that this burden has been taken off my conscience.
You say, “Virtually no one redeems bottles and cans at small grocers and convenience stores”. How did you figure that out? Every c-store I have ever been in has that crap sitting around on the floor, and the law mandates that they MUST redeem those deposits. The state DEC has even recently run some “stings” to make sure the c-stores comply. Now THERE is a good use of our tax dollar!

Sean said...

Of course it's about money, which I why feel this is the right law for (kinda) the wrong reasons.

That doesn't change the fact that the NY deposit law needed to be updated to address the growing number of water bottles being discarded, or the fact that polls show significant support for maintaining and expanding bottle deposit laws (http://www.bottlebill.org/about/benefits/support-polls.htm).

I don't think the bottlers are solely responsible for the problem, and I certainly didn't mean to imply that. However, it is the industry, NOT the consumer, that could reduce its contribution to our waste stream in a heartbeat by taking a proactive role to promote recycling and look into alternative materials or distribution systems. It is the industry, NOT the consumer, that has actively fought and successfully blocked bottle deposit legislation throughout the country, even as polling indicates widespread support.

As far as redeeming bottles at convenience stores goes, I'm sorry, I just don't see it happening. I'm sure it goes on in more urban communities that don't have very many grocery stores. But then again, you typically have bottle redemption centers here that focus exclusively on redemption. Do people bring their empties back to Stewarts? I won't say no one does, but seriously, who the hell is gonna walk in there with a giant bag of bottles and start lining them up on the counter? I could be wrong, but I'd be pretty shocked to find out were this the case.

Another important argument that I didn't touch on in the original post is that expanding the bottle bill could be a real boon to the homeless and extremely poor who redeem bottles for supplemental income.

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