Wrong Way to Reform the New York State Bottle Bill

New York officials are, with the best of intentions, proposing legislation that could cause long term damage to municipal recycling programs across the state.
Although well-intentioned, proposed NYS legislation to expand the Bottle Bill would endanger municipal recycling programs across NYS.
Credit: Eric Goldstein

New York officials are, with the best of intentions, proposing legislation that could cause long term damage to municipal recycling programs across the state.

They are contemplating revisions to the state’s 1982 Bottle Bill, which established a five-cent deposit on all soda and beer containers as a means of reducing street litter and jump-starting local recycling programs. 

NRDC’s over-arching solid waste objective in New York has been to transform the system from primary reliance on landfilling and incineration to making waste prevention/reuse, recycling, composting and equity the cornerstones of state policy. And we have been long-time supporters of the Bottle Bill program.

But the new Bottle Bill proposal—being hurriedly considered in the state’s budget process—would ironically weaken curbside recycling operations from Buffalo to Montauk.

The troubling new bill would expand the deposit system to a wide range of other non-alcoholic beverages including sports drinks, energy drinks, and ready-to-drink coffees and teas. 

This innocuous-sounding proposal would remove many PET and HDPE (plastics #1 and #2) bottles, as well as aluminum cans, from the materials that are presently set out for municipal recycling collections.

But these commodities have real value. They are materials that municipal recycling programs sell in the marketplace. And such sales help ensure the economic viability of curbside recycling and compost collection programs.

Removing these valuable materials from the mix of recyclables that would be deposited in local trash collections and sent to municipal recycling facilities would punch a hole in the economic model of curbside recycling. And such a jolt would come at a time when municipal recycling facilities are already reeling from the recent loss of China as a market for many of their recyclables. 

Economic problems loom for municipal recycling facilities if the state enacts legislation that would remove more plastic and aluminum containers from curbside collections.
Credit: Sims Metals Management

The bottle bill expansion concept first appeared as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Budget proposal earlier this year and has recently been included in stand-alone legislation (A.5028-A) proposed by Assemblymember Steve Englebright, chair of the Environmental Protection Committee. While both officials have advanced important environmental initiatives and are considered strong allies on many environmental issues, their support for this proposal—at least in its current form—is misplaced.

To be sure, there are materials that should be separated from municipal recycling programs, starting with discarded items that are hard for local governments to recycle. These include no-market or low value materials like electronic waste, rechargeable batteries and mercury-containing thermostats, as well as unused pharmaceuticals, mattresses, paint cans and glass. And, more generally, manufactures should be increasingly responsible for bearing the disposal costs of packaging and the consumer goods they produce.

To its credit, the Englebright legislation would add wine and liquor bottles, which are almost exclusively glass, to New York State's bottle deposit system. This would remove large volumes of difficult-to-market glass from municipal programs and reduce the contamination that glass containers create when they are mixed with other recyclables in collection trucks and at materials recovery facilities. Such a reform makes sense, as does another Englebright proposal that would, over the next decade, phase-in minimum post-consumer content requirements for beverage containers sold in the state.

But the main provision of the current Englebright legislation, which adds non-alcoholic beverage containers to the Bottle Bill regime, is a fatal flaw that taints the entire initiative.

How best to reform the New York State bottle bill is a question that warrants careful consideration and full engagement by all stakeholders. There is no need to fast-track this idea; the proposed legislation should be the subject of well-planned public hearings. 

Everyone wants to advance recycling, reduce litter and pollution across the state and spur good paying, green jobs for New Yorkers. Let’s hope our elected officials in Albany take the time needed to reform the state’s Bottle Bill in a way that supports municipal recycling programs, which are the backbone of sustainable trash policy in the 21st century.