As state governments begin looking for creative ways to close looming budget deficits, some are finding that bottle bills are looking good as a way to raise revenue.
Serious efforts are under way in New York and Michigan to expand container-deposit laws and use the money to fund government programs. Delaware's governor is considering taking the state's unredeemed deposits away from the beverage industry and putting them in the treasury. On the flip side, Hawaii's new governor is campaigning to repeal the bottle bill passed last year by the state Legislature.
While the bottle-bill debate still often focuses on reducing litter and raising falling recycling rates, some observers say that the tough fiscal situation in most states is fueling renewed interest.
``We find ourselves in a severe budget crisis where we have a real shortfall in recycling programs,'' said Judith Enck, policy adviser for New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who supports expanding the bottle bill and using unredeemed deposits to pay for state recycling programs.
A decision last year by the city to suspend curbside recycling in New York for glass and plastics, later rescinded, has elevated the issue in the public mind.
Bottle deposits can be attractive to state officials because about 30 percent of cans and bottles won't be returned for deposits - a pot of money that in New York is worth about $100 million a year.
In most states, the beverage companies and retailers keep those unclaimed deposits. But now some state officials say that the government should keep it instead.
``The reason we think the bottle bill was adopted 20 years ago was to promote recycling and reduce litter,'' she said. ``It was never any intention for this to be a windfall for the beverage industry.''
The National Soft Drink Association in Washington said it is seeing more interest in bottle bills this year.
``We think the finances are the driving force,'' said Judith Thorman, vice president of state and local affairs at NSDA. ``Frankly one of our concerns has been that states have just been looking at this not because of recycling, but because all states are looking for money.''
Expanding New York's bottle bill, raising the refund value to a dime and transferring the money to the state would bring in about $135 million a year in unclaimed deposits, said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany. New York state faces a $12 billion budget deficit.
Lance King, an Arlington, Va.-based environmental consultant who works on bottle-bill campaigns, said state fiscal problems are creating a window for supporters. In New York, he predicts that the widespread public and media support means there is a strong chance the state would expand its bottle bill in the next two years.
Not that it is a shoe-in, of course. New York Gov. George Pataki did not, for example, include revenues from unredeemed deposits in his budget proposal released Jan. 29.
While NSDA's Thorman said budgets are complicating the decision, she said state officials who study deposit laws will conclude they are expensive and focus on only a small part of the waste stream, and can pull valuable aluminum cans out of curbside systems.
Supporters, however, say curbside recycles only one-third as much as deposits, and they point to recent studies showing that well-constructed deposit systems can reduce costs.
Plus, the beverage industry needs to take more responsibility, they argue.
``When industry opponents say we have curbside recycling so it's redundant to have a bottle bill, what they fail to mention is that taxpayers pay for curbside,'' Enck said.
Deposits are a tempting revenue stream for cash-strapped states. Michigan's new Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, campaigned on expanding the bottle bill and using that money to pay for land conservation.
``We think it is something that will reduce litter and provide some additional revenues to the state,'' said Granholm spokeswoman Mary Dettloff. ``Every little bit helps when you're facing a situation like we are.''
The state's Republican-controlled legislature recently appointed a commission to study how to improve or expand the state's container-deposit law. Lawmakers said they were concerned that Michigan ranks at the bottom of states on recycling.
If elected officials don't make progress, the Michigan United Conservation Club, with 100,000 members, will make a referendum on bottle-bill expansion its top priority, said policy director Dennis Fox.
Michigan's unredeemed deposits only generate about $10 million a year, and about three-fourths of that already goes to government programs, he said.
Details were not available on the plans in Delaware, where Gov. Ruth Ann Minner may tap unredeemed deposits.
There are varying degrees of activity in other states, including West Virginia and Utah, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va.
Much of the debate remains focused on raising falling container recycling rates and reducing litter, but she said that ``there are some states that are certainly exploring this with their eyes on the pot of gold.''