Senate leaders refused to advance legislation this session to reform New York state's bottle deposit system as state Democrats avoided proposals they fear would fuel voters' concerns about the party's impact on high inflation and rising costs ahead of upcoming elections. 

Lawmakers did not vote on legislation to update the state's Returnable Container Act, including doubling the state's bottle deposit from 5 to 10 cents, expanding which containers can be recycled and increasing the long-standing 3.5-cent handling fee for redemption centers. The state's container deposit laws were last updated in 2009 to allow plastic water bottles to be returned for a deposit.

"If redemption centers go away, there will be a tremendous amount of single-use containers flowing to food stores," said Martin Naro, president of the Empire State Redemption Association and CEO of Recycletek. "They will become overburdened with them. ...This will lead to more single-use containers being burned, buried or polluted."

It's been 15 years since the handling fee for redemption centers has increased. The Empire State Redemption Association represented about 700 centers across the state as of the last U.S. Census, but Naro said about 150 centers have closed across the state in the last year-and-a-half.

Sen. Rachel May sponsors legislation to increase the handling fee to more than 6 cents over the next several years. But legislative leaders rejected the proposal over concerns a higher bottle deposit and handling fee would increase operation costs for distributors, which they fear would be passed to consumers.

"There's this upside-down incentive structure for them to actually want fewer bottles to come into the system,"  said May, a Syracuse Democrat. "And I feel like that's a key thing that we have to figure out, [and] how to set it up so everybody's got an interest and there are being more bottles returned."

May said Senate leaders would not increase the handling fee even 1 cent during negotiations. Talks also broke down late last week over a last-minute disagreement over how to divide unclaimed bottle deposit funds — about $125 million annually — to offset the cost burden.

"Can we set something up... can you build in incentives to get 80% returns or 90% returns?" May said. 

Local governments across the state support expanding the bottle deposit system. But the state Association of Counties does not support the current proposal that allows glass, aluminum and other containers to be returned without additional compensation.

"New York State Associatin of Counties supports expanding the bottle bill to include glass wine and liquor bottles, which will increase recycling rates and reduce costs," NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario said in a statement. "However, adding plastic and aluminum containers should come with compensation for lost revenue. We look forward to working with lawmakers next session to bring about necessary reform."

The senator supports amending the legislation to be more flexible and generally expand the program for beverage containers of certain sizes and materials versus specific beverage types.

Naro argued the state will benefit from a recycling system that does not run off the backs of distributors, adding all parts of the recycling supply chain must to work together to make the system more financially sustainable for all industries involved.

"In order to have a more circular economy, there needs to be financial investment made by some of the key stakeholders in order to make it work," he said.

Outside of politics, lawmakers ran out of time to reach a deal before leaving Albany — especially with the fallout of the congestion pricing bombshell Gov. Kathy Hochul dropped with hours remaining in the legislative calendar.

May said work will be done to amend the proposal and improve New York's bottle deposit system with lofty emission reduction goals set under the 2019 Climate Act. 

"The versions that were on the table were not optimal and I'm hopeful we can do something better next year," she said.