A Better Bottle Bill is Only the Beginning

Amid the New York State budget’s disaster lays some sign of progress. At long last the state legislature has expanded

Amid the New York State budget’s disaster lays some sign of progress. At long last the state legislature has expanded its law requiring deposits on beverage bottles to include a five-cent refundable deposit on water bottles in addition to beer and soda beverage packaging. According to state estimates, water bottles comprise nearly a quarter of all beverage packaging sold in New York (around 3.2 billion bottles), and revenues from the tax would generate around $115 million each year. The law also requires beverage companies to return 80 percent of their unclaimed bottle and can deposits to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, but allows stores to keep a 3.5-cent handling fee, up from the current fee of 2 cents.

For consumers the process is relatively easy. The law requires stores with more than 40,000 square feet to install reverse vending machines that enable customers to place bottles in the machine and receive money (or a credit slip) in return.

Implementation of the bill, however, may be more complicated than some lawmakers believe. A requirement that a New York State-specific bar code be placed on each bottle has distributors and store owners complaining that the June 1 start-up does not provide enough time to use all of the bottles currently in circulation.  Despite this start-up constraint, I suspect the new requirement will eventually be absorbed into the current distribution system.

Bringing back all of these old bottles is a good idea. But the question then becomes, what happens to them once they are collected? Long ago, in the Brooklyn of the 1950’s and 1960’s, we used to have a more close-ended system of beverage distribution. Back then my Great Uncle Joe was a “Soda Man.” He drove a big truck from house to house and delivered wooden (and eventually plastic) boxes with slots for soda. When he reached our home, he carried them on his shoulder down into the basement and for a week we enjoyed the locally bottled soda and seltzer. At the end of the week he returned with a new beverage crate and took back the old bottles. The empty bottles were washed out and reused. Our milk was distributed in much the same way. The “Milkman” left glass bottles of milk in an insulated aluminum box by our front door.

So what happens to today’s deposit bottles? Most of them are shipped out of the United States, and many end up in China, where they are used to make shoes, clothes and plastic containers. That supply chain has not always been negative.

“China’s scrap trade has lifted the fortunes of both the very wealthy … and very poor farmers who have migrated to the city to earn more from recycling than they ever could by working the land,” wrote Austin Ramzy in a November article in Time Magazine.

But as the world’s economy has crashed, piles of plastic are building up the country. According to the Time story: “Plastic bottles, which sold for $1,175 to $1,300 a ton as recently as the summer, are now trading in the $300-to-$450-a-ton range. Zhang [Wei, a worker at a recycling center outside Beijing] claims that as a result of the downturn in scrap prices, the losses sustained by some of his neighbors have ranged from $6,000 to $150,000.”

The products we use are now part of a global system of production, consumption and reuse or disposal. The system is fueled by relatively inexpensive energy and is interconnected in many ways that we rarely notice. The advantage of the bottle bill is that it provides some of the resources needed to encourage us to collect and reuse waste. As long as a bottle has a deposit on it, its economic value is high enough to encourage someone to carry some of the bottles to a place where they can be collected for reuse. While it is good to see the law extend coverage to non-carbonated beverages, I am disappointed that the State did not take advantage of this opportunity to raise the charge to 25 cents. The deposit has been a nickel for very long time, and the average person often finds it easier to toss the bottle in the garbage then hold it to collect the deposit. The large number of non-returns are evidence of this problem.

In the long run, we need to develop ways to close the loop between production and consumption. The idea of producer responsibility is important to establish. If you make something and sell it, the price of disposal or reuse should be included in the cost of the product.  Deposit bills on bottles or tires are one useful way to establish this principle. In some cases, the private sector is not waiting for government regulation. Companies like HP are providing free shipping to recycle printer toner. Other approaches need to be developed, and we need to reduce the amount of stuff this throw-away society throws out. New York’s expanded bottle bill is small but positive step in the right direction.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Sara Schonhardt, Master of International Affairs Student, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. A Better Bottle Bill is Only the Beginning