Time to Update the Bottle Bill

Half.

That’s the percentage of glass containers manufactured in the United States that ends up in landfills every year.

Despite the fact that glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss of purity, 53.1 percent of the beer and soft drink bottles; wine and liquor bottles; and bottles and jars for food and juices, cosmetics, and other products were dumped into landfills in 2017, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data.

That’s a lot of broken glass — 4.7 million tons of it, according to the EPA.

Broken Glass Bottles (Photo: Anders Sandberg on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

New York’s Proposed Expansion of the Bottle Bill

In New York, state leaders are envisioning a future with far lower levels of wasted glass. And they are looking to do it by enhancing a familiar tool: the bottle deposit.

New York is one of 10 states with so-called bottle bills that add a small, cash deposit to the sale of certain types of beverages. The others are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

New York’s bill was enacted in 1982 and amended in 1983, 1992, and 2009. It adds a 5 cent deposit to sales of bottled beverages: carbonated water, energy drinks, juice, soft drinks, and tea; soda water; beer and other malt beverages; mineral water; wine and wine coolers; and any water that doesn’t contain sugar.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed adding sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable beverages and ready-to-drink teas and coffee to the list. And state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would also include wine, liquor, cider, and distilled spirits.

Why Municipally-Recycled Glass is Hard to Get Rid Of

One of the goals of the proposals is to keep as much glass out of municipal recycling systems as possible. Glass that comes out of the municipal materials recovery facilities (or MRFs) tends to be of much lower quality than the glass that is collected through redemption programs at grocery stores and other retail outlets. That’s because the mechanical behemoths that are used to separate glass, plastic, newspaper and cardboard are not foolproof.

“When glass makes its way through the recycling system, it gets crushed and breaks down,” said Angelina Peone, Recycling Coordinator for the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. “In order to capture that, we have to capture these small pieces. So if you put anything in your recycling bin that is smaller than a tennis ball, it is going to get corralled with the crushed glass and contaminate the purity of the glass. We see things like bottle caps, batteries, small pill bottles — anything smaller than a tennis ball is essentially going to contaminate the glass.”

Recycling (Photo: Alan Levine on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

The resulting product is often referred to MRF glass, or “murf” glass. Because of its low purity, MRF glass “is extremely hard to get rid of,” UCRRA Executive Director Tim Rose said. A survey by the Northeast Recycling Council found that 38 percent of MRF glass ends up in landfills in the Northeast.

Is the Impact Worth It? We Think So

In November 2019, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology published a study assessing the impacts if just wine and liquor bottles were added to the bottle bill. The study estimated that such a change would impact 4,500 businesses and approximately 488 million containers in New York. Recycling rates of these containers, the study found, would increase by 65 percent.

Of course, that recovery would come with a cost. The study suggested that expansion would be costly for the wine and liquor industry, which would have to implement new collection procedures. New deposit initiators and dealers would experience approximately $40 million in direct costs, including $36 million in new labor costs.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley.”

Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by the wine and liquor industry and supported by the recycling industry and some non-industry stakeholders. In a joint statement, more than 50 recycling organizations and environmental groups — including Scenic Hudson — noted that it’s been more than decade since the last amendment to the bottle bill.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley,” says Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

He adds, “The bottle bill is a proven strategy that works for New York by incentivizing the return and redemption of empty containers and keeping them out of our river, parks and playing fields. The time has come to take the next step and expand the state’s bottle redemption law.”