Brooklyn Boro

After plastic bag ban, activists turn attention to bottles

May 16, 2019 Scott Enman
Plastic water bottles are one of the most common pieces of litter in and around the Hudson River. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
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Less than a month after plastic bags were banned in New York, environmentalists are turning their attention to another pollutant: single-use plastic bottles.

Thousands of volunteers with water nonprofit Riverkeeper set out along the Hudson River on May 4 to not only pick up trash, but also to collect signatures in support of a bill that would expand the range of beverages eligible for New York’s bottle deposit program.

The legislation would make non-carbonated beverages like Gatorade and tea, as well as wine and liquor glass bottles, eligible for a five-cent deposit. Only sodas, beer cans and water bottles are redeemable under the state’s current program.

Supporters of the bill are hopeful that if passed, it would incentivize more people to recycle and reduce pollution in the state’s waterways.

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“Last year, bottles were the third-most common item found at cleanups, so anything we can do to increase the value of plastic bottles so they end up at a redemption center rather than in a local creek is a positive step forward,” Jeremy Cherson of Riverkeeper told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Sixteen politicians, including Brooklyn Assemblymembers Jo Anne Simon and Felix Ortiz, sponsored the bill, which was put forward in both the State Assembly and Senate.

Encouraging statistics from other states with more expansive bottle deposit programs have activists hopeful that it will have the same effect in New York.

Maine, for example, which collects most beverage containers and offers 15 cents for wine and liquor bottles, has an 84 percent redemption rate, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

New York’s current bottle deposit program, which was first enacted in 1982, has a 65 percent return rate, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

Meanwhile, states without bottle deposit programs report an average 24 percent recycling rate in traditional curbside programs, according to CRI.

In 2013, 899,000 tons of plastic bottles made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) were recycled nationwide, according to CRI, but more than two times that amount was wasted: 2 million tons.

Forty people came out on Saturday to help clean up the shores of Newtown Creek. Photos courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance
More than 2,000 pounds of trash, mostly plastic, were removed from the shores of Newtown Creek. Photo courtesy of Newtown Creek Alliance

In addition to increasing recycling rates, activists hope that the expansion of the deposit program will also reduce the number of bottles found in and around New York’s waterways.

The containers continue to be one of the most-found items at the Riverkeeper Sweep, an annual cleanup of the Hudson River.

Now in its eighth year, the water nonprofit organized 122 remediation projects, including several in Brooklyn around the Gowanus Canal, Grand Ferry Park, Bushwick Inlet Park, WNYC Transmitter Park and Newtown Creek. More than 2,000 pounds of trash, mostly plastic, were removed from along the shores of Newtown Creek.

Riverkeeper Vice President and Patrol Boat Captain John Lipscomb said he picks up a plastic bottle every few hundred feet while out on the water. “The numbers of them are extraordinary that are out there on the [Hudson] River and on the shorelines,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

While encouraged by the plastic bag ban, he said he would love to see plastic bottles outlawed next.

In addition to being environmental hazards, plastic bottles also pose health risks, according to Lipscomb, who said humans inadvertently ingest plastic when the bottles disintegrate into thousands of micro plastic particles.

In Newtown Creek, for example, he said tests revealed that 60,000 to 80,000 micro plastic particles were found in every liter of water.

And while humans aren’t drinking that water, they are eating some of the organisms that live in the ocean, and scientists are finding plastic inside them.

“It isn’t just the plastic you see floating,” Lipscomb said. “The ultimate breakdown of these plastics and their entry into the food web for all creatures, including us, is a really disturbing new level of pollution that we haven’t even begun to deal with.

“We’re poisoning the water and the organisms that live in the water. So when you’re having your nice oysters or clams, you’re eating plastics, and attached to those plastics are pharmaceuticals and other containments that adhere to the plastic particles.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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