NEW YORK — Every bottle or can redeemed by a homeless person in New York State equals a prized nickel toward his or her daily bread. For the public, such recycling means another step in grappling with the ever-increasing mountain of solid waste. But life in the recycling lane is not going very smoothly. New York retailers see accepting and processing the containers (for a 1.5-cent handling fee) as a nuisance. And for the bottlers and distributors who hold the uncollected 5-cent deposits, there is a negative incentive - the fewer containers recycled, the more money they keep - $80 million or more each year, according to state officials.
Distributors have been refusing to take back from retailers the empties they say they did not sell, even if the containers are the same brand. Retailers, in turn, are refusing to take back the quantities of cans mandated by state law.
``The whole thing backs up, and the consumers and street folks get stuck,'' says R.W. Groneman, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Now, a group working for the homeless is suing seven supermarket chains for violating the law, which requires that stores take back 240 containers a day per person.
The stores named in the suit are D'Agostino Supermarkets, A&P, Red Apple, Gristedes, Food Emporium, Sloan's, and Shopwell.
Doug Lasdon, executive director of the Legal Action Center for the Homeless, blames the retailers for playing games with the law. ``They're arguing that the law, when it says 240 cans per day, means they may literally decide when to take cans, from whomever they want, whenever they want,'' Mr. Lasdon says. ``The effect is there's no law.''
He says many stores allow homeless people to redeem only 10 to 40 cans at a time, while letting regular customers turn in more.
Homeless people insist that spending a whole day collecting $12 worth of redeemable cans is tough enough, without having to wander around for hours more, trying to unload them. According to Mr. Groneman, one consequence of the stores' refusal is a redemption rate of just 50 percent in New York City.
Jim Rogers, president of the New York State Food Merchants Association attributes the stores' reluctance to take cans to their inability to get the distributors to accept them. In effect, the stores lose a nickel for each container they accept which a distributor then turns down.
``The distributors are stiffing the supermarket guys,'' Groneman says. ``But that's not New York State's problem.'' He says the state lacks the resources to police the distributors.
Mike Vacek, legislative representative for the New York State Beer Wholesalers Association, one of the largest distributor groups, says the distributors do take back the empties, and that the problem is the retailers. ``The redemption issue is a matter of customer convenience, and is controlled by the retailers' practices,'' he says. ``We take strong exception to the argument that we're causing the retailers to not comply with the law.''
Observers doubt retailers will ever be glad to accept cans from the homeless, especially with the 1.5-cent handling fee, which is lower than nearby states. Some store managers complain about homeless people's appearance and demeanor, and say the containers they return are frequently dirty and constitute a health hazard.
Lasdon contends the lawsuit addresses broader issues than just economics. ``The homeless are really the foot soldiers in helping us clean up the environment,'' Lasdon says. If the retailers cooperated, he says, New York could do a far better job of recycling, and he points to Michigan's 93 percent redemption rate.
Guy Polhemus, who runs We Can, a nonprofit redemption center staffed by homeless men, says centers such as his are a logical answer to the problem. ``Any store that starts taking 240 cans a day will face an onslaught. Here, they can come with 240,000 if they want.''
Mr. Groneman says his department may ask the legislature to increase the maximum penalty of $500 for distributors who refuse cans and bottles. He thinks the answer may be to have the nickel deposit passed all the way back to the beverage plant or brewery. ``That way the retailer would be able to return all of them to the place they came from,'' he says.