"We sell water, so we have to be clever."
–Jeff Caso, former Nestlé Senior VP for Marketing
So, the "bigger better" bottle bill turned into a confusing mess. As you may or may not be aware, after several failed attempts, an expanded deposit/redemption scheme for New York State's beverage containers passed recently, and was scheduled to take effect on June 1st. A coalition of water bottlers, led by evil empire Nestlé, has filed suit to block implementation; sadly, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., head of the environmental group Riverkeeper, has also signed on to block the new bill.
As it turns out, Kennedy is the head of Keeper Springs, a bottled-water company that uses all its profits to advance environmental causes. While the cause is just, and Kennedy's contention that bottled water is here to stay (unlike more radical environmental types, who believe/hope it can eventually be eliminated) is probably realistic, his stance on this bottle bill is disappointing.
Kennedy takes exception to a few aspects of the bill: it only covers non-carbonated beverages that don't contain sugar, leading, he feels, to greater consumption of unhealthy drinks by poorer New Yorkers; it takes 80 percent of the unclaimed deposits and gives them to the New York State general fund, rather than earmarking them for specific green programs; and it takes from existing municipal programs a valuable source of saleable plastic that is now partially funding those programs.
He compares the bill unfavorably to California's bottle bill, which covers virtually all beverages, sugared or no, and directs the revenue from containers collected curbside to the recycling programs where they are collected. In a statement against the new bill, Kennedy says, "I know our state leaders can produce a modern bottle bill that is pro-environment and pro-health and I urge them to do so," while urging those same legislators to abandon the current bill, and aligning himself with the likes of Nestlé.
Nestlé, which owns Poland Springs and 71 other bottled water-companies around the world, pleads financial hardship from the labeling requirements of the new bottle bill. Really? In 2007, Nestlé had $96 billion in revenue, of which $10 billion was profit. The same year it paid its CEO/President $15.5 million. Financial hardship?
Bottled water is one of the most profitable "products" on the market. For starters, you don't have to produce it — you just have to buy some land over a decent water source, and start pumping. Water has turned into a cash cow for those companies that "make" it, and a massive cash drain for communities disposing of its byproducts — billions and billions of plastic bottles.
At the same time, free-marketeers are squawking about the new deposits being yet another tax, painting a picture of a state government run amok in its blood-lust for another drop of revenue to suck from the dying corpse of the poor everyconsumer. These same people never seem to complain about the bottled-water industry's determination to make us all pay for every drop of water we drink, nor do they seem to notice the funds bled from muncipal coffers by the rapidly ballooning waste stream and the attendant disposal costs. Most significantly, they've never cried foul that since the original bottle bill was passed in 1982, all uncollected deposits have been kept by the bottle manufacturers. Cha-CHING.
Sure, the state could do better with the "better" bottle bill — it should cover ALL beverages, and earmark all funds raised through unclaimed deposits for environmental uses. But our last bottle bill was 27 years ago, and it's high time we expanded the scope of the deposit law. More revenue for the state will mean more green spending: NYPIRG says that the deposit cash will "be directed to the state's General Fund, freeing up more funds for the Environmental Protection Fund, which was increased from $205 million to $222 million in the 2009-2010 state budget." That's a start, right?
So while I'm going to keep hoping for a better bill, and keep fighting for one too, I'll take the one we've got, for now. It will help us get into the habit of returning our water bottles, provide another source of income for those who depend on deposits to make a living, and send some more money to environmental projects. Most importantly, it takes a huge chunk of windfall cash away from the companies that are making the mess and redirects it to our state. And that can't be a bad thing.