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Sunday, June 28, 2009

His business is picking up

By Dick Hirsch

As an environmental activist, guys like Pepper don’t get much credit. That’s because he gets so little attention, operating quietly, doing piece work. That means he picks up one can or bottle at a time, unless he is fortunate enough to have developed some rapport with certain homeowners or business operators. They will take the time to collect a batch at home or office and save them until the regular day he appears in their neighborhood, pushing his shopping cart. With an eye for the prizes he is seeking, he thoughtfully sorts through the refuse in search of returnables which he can redeem and collect the cash deposit.

People like Pepper are on the front lines in the struggle against litter. They scavenge and salvage what others discard. If the Returnable Container Act or so-called “bottle bill” has had any success since it became law in New York State in 1982, it is because of men and women like Pepper who sweep up some of the mess created by the rest of us.

Pepper and his colleagues were elated when they heard the news of the passage of legislation that would add provisions to the law, requiring a deposit on water bottles. The New York Public Interest Research Group estimates that two billion water bottles are discarded every year, some tossed at curbside, in parks and other public places. It has been described as a dreadful waste of resources, since each of those bottles is made of plastic, as well as a blight on the landscape.

Those issues aside, when Pepper heard the news earlier this year that the new provisions making water bottles returnable had been added, he wasn’t thinking of the time and materials needed to manufacture an endless supply of bottles that would end up as waste, rolling in the wind. He envisioned the new source of income that would soon become available to him, all those water bottles he had seen but rejected for years, and all the nickels he would gain by collecting and redeeming them.

A lean disheveled man with a frazzled gray beard and a face weathered by too many days in the sun and too many nights sleeping under the bridge, Pepper rarely shows much emotion. When I mentioned the water bottles, he became excited and incandescent. Previously he did various odd jobs but for the last three years he has been devoting his efforts to patrolling various neighborhoods, pushing his cart up and down his favorite streets. He concentrates on the West Side but travels to other sections, too.

“It’s gonna change my life,” he said. “I’ll be rich.”

Obviously Pepper spends little time reading the paper so I had to give him the bad news. A federal judge had issued an injunction, questioning the constitutionality of the legislation and postponing the anticipated effective date of the new law. The judge’s opinion focused on the special New York bar coding requirement which is included in the law to ensure bottles sold in the state are redeemed in the state. The ruling concluded that requirement violates the interstate commerce provisions of the US Constitution. There will be further legal arguments and the possibility that water bottles will continue to be exempt from deposits and returns.

That ruling pleased the water bottlers, the bottle manufacturers, the petroleum and plastics companies that provide the raw materials used to manufacture the caps and bottles, the printers who make the labels, the agencies that handle redemption and others who have profited by the public’s growing attachment to bottled water. It disappointed all the usual environmental groups, organizations that had been lobbying for years to reduce what they perceive to be a costly and wasteful addiction. In addition, it frustrated state officials who were eager to begin collecting 80 percent of the unclaimed deposits on all beverages, supposedly worth $115 million, money now kept by the bottlers.

“Leave it to the politicians to screw things up,” observed Pepper after a moment of reflection when he learned that his projection of increased income was invalid, his plans for an enhanced lifestyle thwarted. That seems to be a view shared by many.

“I only wish they’d have a deposit on wine bottles because I see an awful lot of them,” he suggested, as an alternative revenue source.

That’s unlikely, but we will be hearing more about bottled water, nickel deposits and the emotions the issue provokes. This is probably as good a time as any to mention that the going rate for water from my home faucet is $2.86 per thousand gallons. (end)


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