New York State Lawmakers Look to Advance Recycling by Expanding the Bottle Bill

Earlier this year, members of the New York State Legislature proposed an expansion of the Bottle Bill, a program that has dramatically improved recycling in the Empire State over the past three and a half decades. The New York State Returnable Container Law, commonly referred to as the Bottle Bill, places a five-cent deposit on most types of bottles and cans sold in New York, which can be refunded by returning a bottle to a recycling outpost. The Bottle Bill program has been very successful at incentivizing recycling and reducing solid waste pollution in New York, but the program still has some shortcomings that Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature are currently working to address. Proposed expansions to the Bottle Bill would place a five-cent deposit on several types of bottles and cans that are not currently included in the bill, which would greatly increase the effectiveness of the program. As the State government looks to lead the nation on environmental issues, it must take this practical and impactful action to improve recycling in New York.

To fully understand why it is so important to improve New York’s recycling this year, one must look at the larger picture of the world’s recycling market. Until last year, most recycled materials in the United States were sold and shipped overseas to Chinese companies to be processed. However, the Chinese government recently established much higher standards for what recycled materials can be imported, effectively banning imports of almost all recycled goods from around the world. These new rules have caused the global recycling market to collapse, leaving many municipalities in the United States with nowhere to go with their recycled materials. The collapse of the global recycling market means that in order to maintain and improve its recycling rate, New York must improve how efficiently it manages its recyclable materials. Expanding the Bottle Bill, coupled with State financial support for municipal recycling programs, is a good place to start.

The Bottle Bill, which has been in place since 1983, currently places a five-cent deposit on bottles and cans of soda, beer, and water. This has reduced New York’s beverage container litter by 75% percent, reduced the amount of waste going to landfills, and generated millions of dollars in revenue from unclaimed deposits, a portion of which goes back into environmental protection programs. Increasing the state’s recycling rate has also lowered carbon emissions, as producing containers from recycled materials uses far less energy than producing glass, metal, and plastic from scratch.

Many beverage containers that are not turned in for refunds or are not covered by the Bottle Bill are picked up from curbside bins and brought to local recycling facilities. In these municipal systems, glass, plastic, and metal are hauled off in the same truck and mechanically separated at recycling centers. One shortcoming of this system is that when too much glass, especially colored glass used for wine bottles, is in the stream of recyclables it can clog and damage machines, slowing down the entire process. This is especially a problem for local governments that have single-stream recycling, which is when paper is also mixed in with the metal, glass, and plastic. Glass contamination, and the plummeting value of recycled materials due to Chinese policy, means that many local recycling programs are struggling financially and will have to make difficult decisions about reducing the materials they collect, passing on higher prices to taxpayers, or even shutting down entirely.

The Bottle Bill currently on the books does not take enough glass bottles out of the municipal waste stream. Certain particularly problematic types of glass bottles, including wine bottles and hard cider bottles, are not included in the current program. Placing a refundable deposit on more types of glass bottles would save money for local governments and increase the overall recycling rate in New York.

The expansion that was proposed earlier this year by New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky and Assembly Member Steve Englebright, the respective chairs of the Senate and Assembly Committees on Environmental Conservation, would expand the Bottle Bill program to include wine, liquor, and hard cider bottles. Wine and liquor bottles are currently the largest sources of glass waste in New York, and hard cider bottles are almost identical to beer bottles, so adding these types of containers to the Bottle Bill would be a major relief for local municipalities. Furthermore, the Senate and Assembly proposal would also add energy and coffee drinks to the Bottle Bill, an action that Governor Andrew Cuomo supported in his executive budget proposal. The Assembly version of the bill would mandate that over the next ten years, bottles sold in New York must be produced with a minimum amount of recycled material. This would reduce carbon emissions from manufacturing new bottles and cans, and strengthen the market for recycled materials.

New York State is taking many ambitious actions on the environment this year, and improving recycling must be a part of the environmental agenda. Aside from expanding the Bottle Bill, New York can also improve its recycling by boosting efforts to educate the public on how to properly recycle, as many New Yorkers don’t know what containers are and aren’t recyclable. Throwing garbage into recycling bins can also be harmful to recycling systems. To learn about what containers are recyclable, read our guide on how to properly recycle.

NYLCV is encouraged by actions that have been taken to expand the Bottle Bill and improve recycling in New York, and will continue to strongly advocate for progress on this issue.