Fine Print: The Bottle Bill — It’s Back Before the Legislature, Once Again

Tom Johnson | March 31, 2016 | Energy & Environment
In its latest iteration, the bill’s mandated deposits would go to lead-abatement efforts

kid soda bottle
What it is: Now dubbed the “Smart Container Act,’’ the bill that would try to institute a deposit on all plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans will come up before the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on Monday. It is an issue that has been debated by New Jersey lawmakers for nearly three decades, never making it into law.

What it does: It would impose a 10-cent deposit on containers (other than refillable) less than 24 ounces and a 20-cent deposit on those contains over 24 oz. up to 2 liters. The bill (A-2281) would apply to juice, sports drinks, and bottled water, as well as soda, wine, and beer containers.

What is different about it this time: In the past, the money collected from consumers who buy the beverages would have gone into a fund for a range of uses, such as open-space preservation, litter cleanup, and other environmental projects. With concern about lead poisoning of children rising with the disclosure of lead-tainted water in public schools, the money raised by the deposit would be funneled to a special lead-abatement fund.

How the money would be spent: The fund will focus on reducing exposure to lead in schools and homes, according to an amendment to the bill. The money will be used toward lead-abatement efforts, including removal and replacement of old fountains, pipes, lead solder, and peeling paint in homes and schools.

How much money will be available: So far, the Office of Legislative Services has yet to prepare a fiscal estimate, but proponents of the deposit law say the proposal was projected to raise approximately $30 million a year. Even that, however, is far less than what it is likely to cost to deal with the lead problem in New Jersey, which has emerged as a top priority with the discovery that lead in drinking water forced 27 Newark schools to switch to bottled water.

What are its prospects? Hardly promising. Bottle bills faced strong opposition from the business community in the past and that is unlikely to change, especially given municipal recycling programs that collect containers at the curb, although they often are not recycled.

What are the alternatives? The committee will consider a few other bills to deal with the lead problem, which also have backing in the state Senate. The bills (A-3539/A-3583) would set aside $3 million to test all New Jersey schools for lead in their water and provide $17 million to replace lead pipes and fixtures. The money would come out of an existing Clean Energy Fund, which is financed by a surcharge on customers’ utility bills. That approach has the advantage of not imposing a new fee or surcharge, but clean-energy advocates would oppose the diversion.