Earth Day, April 22, marked the second year in a row that the New York state Legislature declined to enact the initiative known to environmental advocates as the “Bigger Better Bottle Bill.” The smaller, and apparently not-quite-as-good, bottle bill that has been in place since 1984 imposes a nickel deposit on each can or bottle of soda and beer. It was designed as an incentive for all of us to return our bottles for recycling, upon which you got your nickel back.
Unintended consequences of the bill include a reduction in urban panhandling as homeless men find searching for discarded bottles more lucrative than squeegees, as well as a proliferation of Boy Scout bottle drives. Sounds like a win-win, a homeless Boy Scout’s wet dream.
All in all, the bottle bill has led to less litter, and more recycling. Except that the deposit doesn’t apply to the containers most people are carrying around these days: water bottles, iced tea bottles, sports drinks. You only plop down the nickel for carbonated drinks. Hence our highways are no longer jammed with broken Coke bottles, but a carpet of jettisoned Gatorade and discarded Dasani containers.
This is not just an aesthetic problem. Every one of those plastic bottles is made from petroleum, and every bottle not recycled represents increased oil usage, and more waste going to landfills or incinerators. Over the past 15 years, recycling rates for beverage containers have dropped from more than half IN WHAT YEAR? (55 percent, according to the Container Recycling Institute) to barely a third (34 percent in 2006).
The bill that passed the Assembly this year, and failed in the Senate, called for two things. The first was a change in the law to include noncarbonated drinks. If it passed, you would soon be paying an extra nickel for a Vitamin Water or an Aquafina, and you would get that nickel back if and when you return the bottle.
It’s the “if” part that brings us to the second half of the bill: What if you don’t bring it back? The “bigger better” bottle bill would authorize the State Troopers to come to your house without a warrant, at any hour of the day or night, and, if they find any plastic containers in your garbage not being properly recycled, they will take away your children, drown your pets and ban you from the use of public restrooms on the Thruway.
Well, not really. But if you shop at P&C, you will notice enormous posters depicting sullen shoppers waiting in line to drop off their bottles. The campaign, which is not limited to P&C, attacks the bottle bill and urges us all to write to Albany to stop this new “tax.” If it passes, the sun will no longer shine, the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que will shut down, and Jim Boeheim will start wearing a toupee. Something like that. It’s frightening—a scare campaign unworthy of the finest unionized supermarket in town.
In truth it’s just a fight over who gets the nickel. What the bill would do is simply take the money left in unclaimed deposits and give it to the state, which says it will use it for environmental projects. Skeptics may take note that this is the same state that said lottery money would only go to fund education, and that the Thruway, once the bonds were paid off, would no longer be a toll road. Point taken—but the end use of that money is not the bone of contention.
The big fight each year in Albany between the Food Industry Alliance and groups like the New York Public Interest Research Group is over whether the money should go to the state or remain with the bottlers. Right now NYPIRG estimates that as many as $200 million each year goes to the bottling industry, which takes in more nickels than it returns to consumers. They call this a windfall profit for Coca-Cola and Anheuser Busch. The Food Industry Alliance and the bottlers call the new bill a hidden tax. (Lest we shed too many tears for the bottlers, it should be noted that they do receive two cents per container as a processing fee, and the bill would raise that to 3.5 cents).
So maybe what someone in Albany needs to do is to separate the two pieces of the puzzle, and see if a Bigger, but not Better, Bottle Bill can pass. A bill that covers noncarbonated drinks but lets the bottlers keep the nickel might have a chance. And while the politicians are arguing about where to put the nickel, why don’t we all just get together and tell them exactly where they can put it?
Remember that scene in Brokeback Mountain when Jack Twist (he’s the dark one, played by the actor who got killed in the movie but is still alive in real life), after a lovely weekend of catching no fish with Ennis, gets into a fight about their hidden love, and shouts into the air this plea: “I wish I knew how to quit you.” Jack Twist could be our poster boy for a citizen effort to bring an end to the era of bottled water.
Think about it. In 1993 bottled water didn’t exist. That’s not so long ago. That’s during Bill Clinton’s first year in the White House. This year we may twist open and drink 50 billion containers of water. In 1997 barely 3 billion were sold. So bottled water is not a human necessity. It’s not even a convenience. Water is pretty much everywhere. We all have containers in our homes. Why not fill ’em up and take ’em along with us? Or stop at a drinking fountain? What a radical idea.
I did a test recently on the water in an old building on the West Side. Actually my son ran the test for me, using a kit we bought at Home Depot. We compared a bottle of Wegmans water with a bottle filled from the tap. Guess what? The levels in the tap water were better in every category, except for the chlorine.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. What New York City and upstate New York have in common are exceptional public water supply systems. We should use them. No legislative action required. Environmental benefits inestimable. NYPIRG can move on to even bigger and better things. P&C can take down those hideous posters.
I’m with Jack. I wish I could quit you, Aquafina. It won’t be easy. Just as Jack loved Ennis, we do love our bottled water. Let’s quit anyway. You know he’s no good for you, you just know it. It’s time to move on. Let the healing begin. Later on your friends will tell you they never thought you two were good together anyway.