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NY Bill Would Allow Reusable Beverage Container Refills

Karen Dewitt
New York State Senator Jen Metzger

Two majority-party lawmakers have introduced a bill in New York that would give customers in cafés, fast food shops and even some restaurants the option to use their own container for coffee, water, or to bring home left overs.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and State Senator Jen Metzger, both Democrats, chose a local coffee shop in Albany, 3Fish Coffee, to talk about the legislation they’ve dubbed the “Right to Refill” bill.

Metzger clutched both a refillable water bottle and reusable coffee mug that she says she brings “everywhere I go." She says she believes if customers were allowed to bring in their own containers and refill them, it could cut down on single-use containers.  

“We all have to be mindful of every decision we make at this point,” Metzger said. “Because we’re on an unsustainable path.”

Metzger and Fahy say an estimated 16 billion single-use coffee cups are used worldwide each year, and 16 million single-use plastic water bottles are used each day. Most of the time they are not recycled.

Fahy, who is seldom without her Kelly green reusable coffee mug, says she’s been turned away from some shops when she’s asked to refill her container, and told it was against health laws.  

“Different food establishments have said ‘No, no, no, it’s a Department of Health regulation,'” Fahy said. “'We have to use a paper cup.'”

But Fahy says she researched it, and found there are no state health laws against the practice, and no reporting of any kind of cross-contamination or illness caused by someone using their own container for coffee or water.

She says there may be some individual county health laws that prevent it, but a state law would supersede that.  

Fahy says she’s also been told that it’s against some companies’ business practices.

“They want to count the cups,” Fahy said. “And they want to sell the water, it’s their way of keeping track of inventory.”

But Fahy says that’s not a good enough reason.

“We really have to move away from the plastics, and also the paper cups,” Fahy said.

The measure would also permit people to bring in their own containers to restaurants to take home leftovers.

Credit Karen Dewitt
3Fish shop owner Emma Fullem offers a tap at the end of the service counter for customers to fill up their water bottles, and real glasses if they just want a quick drink.

3Fish shop owner Emma Fullem offers a tap at the end of the service counter for customers to fill up their water bottles, and real glasses if they just want a quick drink. She says when she first opened her locally-sourced café and bakery she intended not to sell bottled water, but found there was some customer demand for it.

“People did need to stay hydrated in the summer, who weren’t sticking around,” Fullem said. “But we offer cups here, so they can refill them themselves when they are in the shop.”  

She says it also saves her money to not have to hand out a paper cup each time someone wants a glass of water.  

The bill is endorsed by environmental groups, including the New York Public Interest Research Group and Environmental Advocates of New York.

Fahy and Metzger say their measure is just a start. They hope in the future to introduce legislation to allow people to bring their own reusable containers to buy items in the grocery store.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.