New York's "Bottle Bill" soon to turn 40
New York State’s bottle deposit law, also known as the Bottle Bill, has been around for so long, it’s hard to imagine it remains controversial. You buy certain containers, you place a nickel deposit, return it, and get the nickel back. Less junk for the landfill, more recycling of wastes.
It’s worked that way for nearly four decades, and it’s been extremely successful. Over its 40-year history, New York’s Bottle Bill has proven highly effective at reducing litter and increasing recycling rates. In 2020, nearly two-thirds of all covered containers were redeemed by New York consumers. The Bottle Bill has reduced roadside container litter by 70%, and in 2020, 5.5 billion containers were recycled in the state.
When it first passed in 1982, the Legislature articulated its policy goals stating that “requiring a deposit on all beverage containers, along with certain other facilitating measures, will provide a necessary incentive for the economically efficient and environmentally benign collection and recycling of such containers.” And those policies have been realized and the law has created thousands of jobs for those collecting and recycling the containers.
What doesn’t make sense is how the state determines which containers are covered by the deposit and which ones are not.
Despite the addition of wine coolers (remember them?) and water bottles a decade ago, the basic coverage of the law remains in place. The nickel deposit enacted in 1982 is still a nickel and the containers that are covered is still a short list – with many containers left outside the scope of the law.
Think about America circa 1982. Global warming was a topic limited to scientists, the Internet was a military application, “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John topped the music charts, disco was still on the dance floors. Ronald Reagan was halfway into his first term as President. And Hugh Carey was New York’s Governor.
Since that time, the world has changed in so many ways, but not the basic architecture of the Bottle Law. While some new containers have been added to the beer and soda containers that were originally covered in 1982 (most notably water bottles), the deposit is still a nickel, and many popular beverages – some of which that did not exist forty years ago – are not covered. For example, sports drinks and other plastic containers that clog our parks and streets are not covered. There are some old products outside the scope of the law too – while wine coolers are in, wine bottles are out. How does that make sense?
It’s time for the Bottle Law of the late 20th Century to join the 21st.
Last week, over 100 environmental and community organizations sent a letter to Governor Hochul urging her to use next year’s Bottle Bill 40th anniversary to modernize the law. Other states have improved their laws – Connecticut just made major improvements this year. Thus, a blueprint for improvements exists.
In their letter to the governor, the groups identified two major changes to the law that should be considered:
- Expand the types and number of beverage containers covered by the Bottle Bill. Other states from Maine to California include a diverse range of non-carbonated beverages, hard cider, wine, and liquor to great success.
- Increase the amount of the deposit to a dime and direct a portion of the additional revenues collected by the state to ensure better compliance and enhance access to redemption entities in currently underserved communities. As you can guess, a nickel in 1982 isn’t worth the same as a nickel in 2021 (more like 15 cents). States like Michigan and Oregon that have increased their deposit to a dime have seen increases in recycling and container redemption rates. The groups identified areas of the state that they called “bottle bill deserts” (mainly in low-income urban areas) that need support in order to make it easier for consumers to redeem their deposits.
The groups argued that modernizing the Bottle Bill will reduce litter, increase recycling rates, reduce carbon emissions, and bring thousands of additional jobs to New York.
40 years is a long time. Modernizing the Bottle Bill is an important way for Governor Hochul to move the state forward in its efforts to reduce waste and to enhance recycling.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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