A Redeemer's Dream - Or a Bigger Better Bottle Bill

04/01/2009 05:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I first became an earner at the tender age of six, jumping into a new and largely untested field that paid cash, had flexible hours, and sparked political controversy across the nation. In short, I began to collect empty bottles and cans and exchange them for nickels.

That was in Massachusetts, where consumers began paying a 5-cent deposit on all carbonated beverage containers in 1983. Instituted as an environmental measure, the "bottle bill" aimed to encourage recycling and reduce trash at roadsides and in landfills. A side effect - anticipated or not - was a brand new market, and I planned to cash in. Unable to extort candy money from my parents, I set out with a handful of garbage bags and started making house calls. This was in the days before curbside recycling and I had the whole neighborhood working for me: I would collect on Fridays and then head to the local liquor store and redemption center, generally gathering enough bottles and cans to rake in $5-10 a week. I was the richest kid in the world.

More than two decades later, now in New York, the can and bottle economy is still part of my life. In my Brooklyn neighborhood, there is a brisk trade in returnables. People hike the streets collecting used containers in bags, shopping carts, and cars. This is a diverse group of people who are known as "redeemers", or "canners", and they range from the homeless and unemployed to families supplementing their income to highly organized recycling teams with vehicles and complex communication networks. Unlike my cushy childhood rounds, where the elderly woman next door was as likely to present me with a plate of cookies as a bag of soda cans, these redeemers scour residential recycling bins, park trash cans, restaurants, gutters, or wherever a lonely bottle may have landed. The paycheck comes at redemption centers, which in New York City generally take the form of vending machine-like towers that consume carbonated beverage containers and excrete dollars and coins.

New York and Massachusetts are among only a handful of states that have passed bottle bills - there are 11 in all. Most were implemented in the seventies and eighties and they all differ slightly in terms of what can be redeemed and what is done with the uncollected deposits. California, for instance, charges a deposit on all beverages except milk and then the state collects any deposits that go unredeemed. New York, on the other hand, initially embraced a more common model and only placed deposits on malt liquor, beer, and soda containers. Unclaimed deposits are kept by the distributors - a windfall of millions which was originally intended to defray the costs associated with setting up the redemption infrastructure.

As I see it, redeemers provide a valuable service. Without them, a significant number of bottles and cans that missed the recycling bin would not be sifted out and redirected. Whether or not the motivation is environmental, there is no denying that the increased recycling contributes to the bills' original goal of cutting down on litter and landfill waste. In return redeemers receive a small award for doing something that many of us are too busy or lazy to do ourselves. They work hard and are not getting anything for free. Of course, deposit containers pulled from residential recycling bins would have been reprocessed anyway. There are even some concerns that redeemers might hurt municipal recycling programs, which in some cases receive funding dependent on the amount of recyclables they pick up. Most estimates, however, suggest that the bottles and cans taken by redeemers constitute a negligible amount of a municipal program's haul.

New York's bottle bill has recently felt some growing pains. Faced with an enormous budget deficit, Governor David Paterson has included two major changes to the bill in his 2009 budget. The first would be to appropriate the unredeemed deposits from distributors and use the money for environmental programs - as a number of other states already do. But more relevant to the redeemers of New York, the new bill could expand the 5-cent deposit to nearly all beverage containers, including bottled juice, iced tea, coffee, and water - a market that has grown exponentially since the original bill's passage in 1983. This change could potentially double the amount of money earned by the young woman who regularly checks my recycling bin for soda and beer cans.

Of course, this consequence of the new bill has not seen much discussion among those responsible for its passage. New York's lawmakers are too busy fielding outraged comments from the state's retailers and distributors, who stand to lose an estimated $118 million in unclaimed deposits, There is also strong advocacy from environmentalists who have been fighting to expanded the bottle bill for years. The debate is a heated one.

New York's budget is scheduled to be voted on by today, April 1. After extensive backroom dealing, only time will tell if the "bigger, better bottle bill" is still included in any meaningful form. Meanwhile, Connecticut recently passed similar legislation and, starting today, redeemers will be able to collect 5-cents for a discarded water bottle. Other initiatives are underway across the country, from West Virginia to Florida to New Mexico.

Back in Massachusetts, Governor Duval Patrick has also proposed adding bottled water, juice, and sports drinks to the deposit program. If I was still making my neighborhood rounds this would have felt like hitting the jackpot. In the end it may have meant only a few extra bucks, but that would still mean increasing profits 100 percent.

There's little doubt in my mind that expanded deposit legislation in New York and other states will mean increased recycling rates, and ultimately, less waste in our landfills. And that's a wonderful thing. But it's for the redeemers' sake that I hope these bills pass. As more people feel the squeeze of a faltering economy, that few extra bucks will likely mean a lot to some of our most disenfranchised citizens.