JUNE 2009

New York enacts water bottle deposit

Bottle and can recyclers in New York are expanding their operations and hiring new employees following changes to the state’s beverage container deposit law.

The state’s Returnable Container Act – commonly referred to as the “Bottle Bill” – now requires a $.05 deposit for water bottles in addition to carbonated soft drinks, beer and other malt beverage containers after legislators amended the law this spring.

“This will have a huge impact on redemption centers across the state,” said Sheila Rivers, chairperson of the Bottle and Can Redemption Association in New York. Rivers is also the owner of EZ Bottle and Can Return in Fairport, New York. She said that centers like hers will be investing in new equipment and expanding their facilities.

“We will be growing, expanding, and new redemption centers will be opening. We will be creating hundreds, if not thousands of new jobs,” Rivers said. There are currently more than 300 private and non-profit redemption centers in the state.

The expanded bottle bill also increases the handling fee for recycling bottles and cans from $.02 to $.035 cents per container. Rivers said that the increase is critical to the survival of the redemption centers and will enable recyclers to hire new workers to handle the expected increase in returns. There has not been an increase since 1997.

The first major revision of the state’s deposit law since it was created in 1982 also requires beverage companies to return 80 percent of the unclaimed bottle and can deposits to the state. This is expected to generate $115 million for the state’s general fund for this fiscal year. The remaining 20 percent will be kept by the beverage industry.

With nearly 2.5 billion bottles of water sold each year, making up an estimated 23 percent of the beverage sales in New York, the state is anticipating a boost in recycling. “There will be a significant increase in the number of beverage containers requiring a deposit,” said Val Washington, deputy commissioner for remediation and materials management with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“In addition to directing all of these water bottles into the recycling stream, the deposit will also result in a significant reduction in litter.” The state estimates that in the 27 years that the bottle bill has been in existence it has reduced roadside litter by 70 percent, recycled 90 billion containers, and saved more than 52 million barrels of oil.

Environmentalists are also praising the addition of water bottles to the state’s deposit law. “This expansion covers about 70 percent of the containers we were looking to cover,” said Saima Anjam, a program associate at Environmental Advocates of New York. She said her group was hoping the addition would include all non-carbonated beverages. But it only covers water, nutritionally-enhanced and flavored waters.

Before the expansion of New York’s deposit law, less than 20 percent of water bottles were recycled in the state, according to estimates by Laura Haight, senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group. “With the expansion of the state’s bottle bill we expect the recycling rate to triple or quadruple,” Haight said, noting that return rates for bottle bills average just under 70 percent.

Haight said that she expects others states will follow New York’s lead and include water bottles in their deposit programs. “New York is a very large state and it is going to cause a ripple effect throughout the industry,” she said. “It is certainly energizing advocates in other states that are working to either create or expand bottle bills.”

Eleven states have bottle bills. While some include water, like Maine, Hawaii, Oregon and California, others do not, like Iowa and Michigan. Connecticut expanded its bottle bill to cover non-carbonated water earlier this spring. Bottled water in Connecticut now carries a $.05 deposit and unclaimed deposits are now returned to the state.

“The details of the different laws are quite different. But I think this is showing that states with bottle laws are recognizing the need of updating their laws to reflect the public’s current drinking habits,” Haight said. “Many times the strongest environmental laws get passed first by states and are then the tipping point for national action.”

The Sonoma, California-based trade group, the National Association for PET Container Resources, takes a neutral stand on bottle bills. “We support anything that will bring bottles back from the waste stream,” said Dennis Sabourin, executive director. “But we don’t specifically support water bottles. We feel that it is part of an overall program that would include drop offs, curbside collection programs, and of course bottle bills.”

Since there are currently a number of different plans to include water bottles in bottles bills across the country that are being considered by state legislatures, the United States could end up with a different recycling system for each state, Sabourin said.

Therefore, a national bill might be an option to consider. “Could it be something that would give a uniform system and something where all stakeholders could weigh in on the issue to make sure that it is the best compromise for all stakeholders? There is something to be said about that,” he said, again stressing his group’s neutral stance.

Other trade groups are opposed to bottle bills. The International Bottled Water Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia, claims bottle bills create disincentives for curbside recycling efforts by giving consumers a financial incentive not to put their empty bottles into curbside recycling and forcing them to return bottles to stores.

The American Beverage Association, based in Washington D.C., also opposes efforts, like in New York, to expand bottle bills. “In an economy like this, the last thing government should be doing is raising taxes,” the group said in a statement. The trade group estimates the New York deposit fee equals a 25 percent sales tax on water.