Photo credit: Mali Maeder

The 1970s saw many key national developments in the American environmental movement: Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Endangered Species Act were all established in the first years of the decade. Increased concern for the environment spurred individual states to act as well, and by 1980, Oregon, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Iowa, and Connecticut had adopted container deposit bills, popularly known as “bottle bills,” to combat litter. These six states were joined by Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, and California, and in 2002, Hawaii became the most recent state to implement a bottle bill. This type of bill traces its origins to the days when beverage industries relied on consumers to return their glass bottles for reuse, a system some dairies retain today. As American society shifted toward cheaper packaging materials, namely aluminum and plastic, this relationship between consumers and producers eroded.

While specific aspects of bottle bills vary state to state, they rely on the same basic system of deposits to incentivize retailers, distributors and consumers to participate. In most states, retailers are tasked with operating the system, facilitating the exchange of deposit amounts between themselves, their distributors, and their customers. To defray costs, retailers collect a small handling fee on each container. When consumers fail to return eligible containers, their deposits can go a number of places: states may retain the money and use it to fund the recycling program or other environmental projects, or retailers and producers may keep the deposits. In Michigan and New York, these parties share unredeemed deposits. Although for many people, the potential of recycling to reduce costs, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions has become paramount, states still use litter to gauge the success of their bills. Hawaii, for example, tracks glass, plastic, and metal container counts from an annual beach debris cleanup.

Proponents tout bottle bills as the most successful and cost-effective system to incentivize distributors, retailers, and consumers to recycle, but others emphasize the convenience of curbside collection programs. In 2010, Delaware moved to replace its bottle bill with a curbside collection program. Leading up to this transition, return rates were low, and retailers grew reluctant to accept containers from consumers. Additionally, the one-cent-per-container handling fee was not enough to encourage the growth of recycling centers independent from retailers. The state ended the five-cent container deposit and replaced it with a temporary four-cent tax to fund the implementation of a curbside collection recycling program. Like other curbside systems, this program combines all recyclable materials into a “single stream,” and transports them to recycling operations. By 2016, the overall recycling rate in Delaware had risen 10 percent. Many manufacturers and retailers support exchanging bottle bills for curbside recycling programs, arguing that curbside programs can be cheaper and are at least as effective as bottle bills in encouraging recycling. Curbside programs directly tax consumers for their container purchases and use this revenue as funding, removing the role that manufacturers and retailers play under most bottle bills.

Although curbside collection programs can provide convenience, a 2013 study by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) indicates that states with bottle bills recycle at much higher rates than those with other recycling programs (or none at all). On average, states that incentivize with container deposit laws recycled aluminum, plastic and glass containers at double the rate of states without bottle bills in 2010. In states with bottle bills, aluminum cans were returned at a rate of 84 percent, compared to 39 percent in states with other systems in place. The study notes that plastic bottle recycling rates are lower than glass and aluminum because many bottle bills exclude bottled water and other non-carbonated beverages. Their exclusion is a relic of the era when most of the bills were drafted, years before the rise of plastic bottled water in the 1990s and the proliferation of juices and other non-carbonated drinks in the 2000s

Additionally, bottle bills alleviate a problem characteristic of single-stream systems: waste contamination. By requiring consumers to sort and rinse containers, contamination is greatly reduced and recycling facilities can more cheaply recycle a larger percentage of materials. As a result, the CRI found that while only 60 percent of single-stream curbside glass is recycled into new bottles, 98 percent of glass returned in states with bottle bills is successfully recycled. Taking into account rates of recycling at the consumer level, the disparity is even larger: in 2010, 75 percent of glass bottles in non-bottle bill states were never recycled, compared to 35 percent in states with bottle bills.

The limited availability of convenient, ubiquitous curbside recycling programs complicates the picture, however. According to a 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency and The Recycling Partnership, only around 53 percent of the U.S. population is automatically provided curbside recycling by local government, while many others must opt-in, or may lack access altogether. Another study by researchers at Duke and Vanderbilt Universities sampled more than 3,100 households to examine individual responses to policies that rely on deposit incentives, as well as those that make recycling more convenient and impose noncompliance fees. The researchers found both systems to be effective, but identified a pattern that may explain why states with bottle bills see significantly higher container recycling rates. While lower-income consumers who do not identify as environmentalists can be converted into consistent recyclers by either policy option, implementation and enforcement are critical components. In many states that do not have bottle bills, and instead rely on curbside or community recycling programs, participation may not be mandatory or noncompliance fees may not be imposed following violations.

Jim Jeffords, who served as a U.S. senator from Vermont from 1989 to 2006, first as a Republican and then as an Independent, introduced and cosponsored legislation for a nationwide bottle bill more than half a dozen times in his career. His final attempt, the National Beverage Producer Responsibility Act of 2002, would have established a 10-cent deposit on a wide range of containers across the country. The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and never received a vote. A national bottle bill was introduced to the House in 2009 but also failed to gain traction.

Although the attempts by Sen. Jeffords and others to implement a container deposit bill nationwide have been unsuccessful, many states with bottle bills have expanded them. In 2017, Oregon, the first state to implement a bottle bill, increased both the number of containers eligible and the container deposit from five cents to 10 cents. In Summer 2018, Oregon also launched the first statewide refillable bottle system, using barcodes and the existing bottle bill infrastructure to return beer bottles to a handful of participating breweries. But in 2014, Massachusetts voters rejected a proposal to expand the bottle bill to include water and juice. The American Beverage Association (ABA), which advocates for the non-alcoholic beverage industry, spent $5 million to defeat the proposal, and supported legislation to replace the bottle bill with a curbside collection program. To the ABA, bottle bills essentially impose a tax on their products, making them more expensive for consumers who do not redeem their deposits after purchase. In addition, replacing the bottle bill with a curbside collection program would eliminate the role of retailers and distributors in the recycling process, which they argue is cumbersome and obsolete.

Both bottle bill-based and curbside collection systems depend on the existence of functional recycling infrastructure. With China’s ban on dozens of types of imported recyclables, there is both a need and an opportunity to develop financially viable recycling systems in the United States. With bottle bills, consumers bring clean containers to collection facilities where they are sorted by material type. These steps save money for recycling operations, which often discard materials from single-stream curbside collection programs that are contaminated or of a type that their equipment cannot process. In the future, advances in sorting technology and consumer efforts to reduce contamination may make materials from curbside collection programs more financially viable as well.


Author: Clayton Coleman