Figure 1: Deposit information on the side of a can (Case 2012)
Expanding the Bottle Bill
Nick Bonner, Plant Soil and Insect Science
Kathy Choy, Environmental Science
When I was young, my father would often bring home trash bags full of plastic bottles and cans from his work to return to bottle deposits since they would simply be thrown away otherwise. This was a very exciting thing to me, seeing how someone’s trash could be converted into money. We promptly hopped into the car and went to the nearest supermarket. As the five cents per container racked up, we had earned enough money to buy groceries for the day through very little effort. While my family was not poverty-stricken, it did not hurt to collect the extra money. Though I was not sure how recycling worked, I knew that I had helped the environment in some small way. Recycling can be a fun bonding experience and a source of income for families who are not so well off. But it is also something of environmental concern, because despite the “go green” age that we live in, Americans are recycling at surprisingly low rates.
Sources of the Problem
In 2010 the U.S. recycling rate was only 34.1% (U.S. EPA 2013), and it has not changed much since. Bottled and canned drinks are particularly susceptible to being thrown out instead of recycled because they are easily transportable. Now that Americans are consuming more bottled drinks than ever, it raises the question of if these containers are being properly disposed of. Susan Collins, the president of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), says:
Recycling rates have stagnated in large part due to a dramatic increase in consumption of these beverages, especially at businesses and in public spaces where recycling bins are scarce… Another key factor in the decline in recycling rates is the unwillingness of state legislatures to enact effective recycling policies, especially new or expanded container deposit laws. (para. 4)
A container deposit law, or bottle bill, is a piece of legislation in place that states when you buy soda or beer, you pay an extra five cents (ten cents in Michigan) per can or bottle. Once you are done with the container you can bring it back to a redemption center or most liquor stores and get the five cents back.
The ten states which currently have a bottle bill in place are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. But the entire United States consumes bottled and canned drinks, which is a driving factor in how much waste is being produced instead of being recycled and reused. Litter buildup is a real problem and this is evident in Gitlitz’s (2004) statement: “The absolute quantity of bottles and cans landfilled, littered or incinerated has nearly doubled during the last decade, going from 64 billion units in 1992 to 118 billion in 2002” (p. 2). This is proof that although we have these bottle bills in place in ten states, it is not enough. Those ten bottle bill states cannot pick up the slack of the other forty, because according to a CRI report, “as beverage sales increased, the rate at which they were recycled declined. In 2010, CRI found that Americans recycled just 37 per cent of the 243 billion beverage containers sold” (SWR 2013). That means a little over 153 million of those containers ended up in landfills or somewhere where they could not be recycled into a reusable product. If the remaining forty states had a bottle bill of their own, a lot of those containers would be properly recycled. What a difference it would make, seeing as deposit states represent only 28% of the U.S. population but accounted for 46% of all containers recycled in 2010 (SWR 2013).
Advantages of having a bottle bill and a solution
In an effort to both combat litter buildup and a lack of recycling overall, we feel the bottle bill should be expanded across the nation. They prove to be an effective method to combating litter waste, as bottle bill states have much higher rates of recycling on the containers that the law covers; the rate is well above 50% in bottle bill states compared to the national average being less than 40%. Michigan alone has rates above 90% (CRI 2013); the fact that one bill can more than double the rates of recycling in a specific state is proof that it works.
Although expanding the bottle bill nationwide would be extremely effective at increasing recycling and decreasing the amount of litter, we propose one more addition to the bill to make it more effective: that it also allows for the redemption of plastic beverage containers like water, juice, and sports drinks. The sad fact is that Americans are consuming plastic more than ever, and disposing of it improperly: “In 2005, the United States threw away… 44 billion PET plastic bottles [and] 7 billion HDPE plastic bottles” (Hadden, 2009, para. 6). And wasted containers are a problem with much far reaching consequences that landfill pile up. According to Gitiliz (2004):
The environmental consequences of replacing 118 billion wasted bottles and cans with new ones made from virgin materials squandered the energy equivalent of 33 million barrels of crude oil- enough to meet the annual needs of two million U.S. homes- and generated four million tons of greenhouse gases. Other impacts include groundwater contamination, SOx and NOx emissions and habitat loss from strip mining (p.4).
A clear way to help reduce this devastating damage is to make recycling worth the consumer’s while. In the words of deputy director of consumer programs at the Massachusetts Department of Environment Protection Greg Cooper: “‘ The fact that the recovery rate is so much higher shows that if you put a financial incentive on recycling, it will be more broadly accepted and will see more success’”(Peterson, 2013, para. 7).
Therefore, we propose to the American public and its lawmakers that a national bottle bill, encompassing all 50 states, should be put into place, and that it allow not only soda and alcohol containers but also plastic beverage containers. This will increase American recycling and reduce litter through incentives to consumers, as well as help the environment.
Despite the numerous advantages we have laid out, the bottle bill is not without its opponents. We are not the first people to have this idea, and the fact that it is still a topic of debate and not a law speaks to the effectiveness of the resistant audiences’ arguments. The majority of bottle bill opponents are large beverage companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Anheuser Busch, which compose the American Beverage Association and the greenwashing Keep America Beautiful. They oppose the bottle bill because it puts the financial burden of recycling the beverage containers onto them (CRI 2013). These corporations have deep pockets, and are not above buying favor by contributing to political campaigns (CRI 2013).
One point that never fails to be brought up in the bottle bill arguments is that the bill is outdated. Most of the bottle bill states have had the law in effect since the early 1980s, and it is true the redemption rate has declined in the deposit states in the last decade (with the exception of Michigan, home of the ten cent deposit). Gitiliz (2004) attributes this decline to several factors stemming from the age we live in: a lack of interest from the public, the popularity of consumption on-the-go, and less emphasis on recycling being seen by our politicians and in the news (p.2). However, as Gitiliz (2004) points out: “Although redemption rates have slipped from a high of 85 percent in New York and Massachusetts to about 70 percent today, that’s still twice as high as the national average” (p.3).
Another argument made against the bottle bill is that it is too much work for the consumer. Stop & Shop, a big opponent of the bottle bill, published a “[F]lyer stat[ing] that bringing additional containers back to the store would be a ‘major hassle’” (LeShane, 2007, p.23) and Rob Keane, a spokesperson for the company claims that: “An expanded bottle bill… will be an inconvenience to the consumer”(LeShane, 2007, p. 23). However, as director of the Container Recycling Institute Betty McLaughlin points out “ ‘The beauty of return to retail is that the consumer is going to return to the store anyway’” (LeShane, 2007, p.23). The stance those adverse to the bottle bill take is that curbside recycling is just easier. President of the Massachusetts Food Association Christopher Flynn says that : “‘ 90 percent of the state’s residents have available to them either curbside or drop-off recycling programs, and in this day and age, it really doesn’t make sense to separate your trash and bring half of it back to the food store’”(Peterson, 2013, para.10). But what Mr. Flynn fails to mention about curbside recycling, Connecticut State Senator Bill Finch does mention:
‘[Opponents running misleading propaganda campaigns] imply that once bottles are brought to the curb, they disappear and get recycled. But you have to run big trucks and pay employees to transport them to recycling centers, instead of just filling up empty cars going to grocery stores’ (LeShane, 2007, p. 23).
The bottle bill is both better for the environment, since it cuts out the emissions of middle man garbage trucks, and better for the economy, since it saves people from having to pay taxes for more employees and more trucks.
Opponents of the bottle bill love to use one buzzword to get people on their side: tax. It is what the American Beverage Association, headed by Pepsi, Coca Cola, Snapple, and other makers and bottlers of soft drinks and water, say. It is also the word Rob Keane, spokesperson for Stop & Shop, uses to describe the bill. They think they can fool everyone who sees an extra fee tacked onto their purchase into getting outraged by another tax. State Senator Madison Marye of Virginia puts all those arguments to rest in his quote: “Well sir, I sure wish all my taxes refundable, like container deposits.” It is foolish to call the bottle bill a tax, since only the consumer pays the deposit, and he can get back the full amount with little effort.
There is no getting around it; Americans are a wasteful people. We throw our cans and bottles in the trash or out our car windows, with a sneer on our faces, thinking “What’s recycling ever done for me?” Well, here is the chance to make recycling worth our while. Every can, bottle, and plastic container across the nation will have value. We can pocket the extra cash, this time with a smile on our faces, and help out the environment at the same time.
Container Recycling Institute (CRI) (2013). Bottle bill resource guide. Retrieved from http://www.bottlebill.org/
Gitlitz, J. (September 2004). Are bottle bills still relevant? Resource Recycling,
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Hadden III, T. (July/August 2009). National bottle bill: the time is now. Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Management, 19, (5). 8. Retrieved from EBSCOHOST
LeShane, K. (September/October 2007). Keeping America cluttered. E: The
Environmental Magazine, 18 (5). 22-24. Retrieved from EBSCOHOST
Peterson, B. (2013, September 24). Mass. legislature, groups attempt to negotiate on update to bottle bill. Retrieved from http://dailyfreepress.com/2013/09/24/mass-legislature-groups-attempt-to-negotiate-on-update-to-bottle-bill/
Solid Waste & Recycling (SWR) staff. (2013, November 05). Us buying more drink containers, recycling less, says cri report. Retrieved from http://www.solidwastemag.com/news/us-buying-more-drink-containers-recycling-less-says-cri-report/1002701954/r2vyy8wrW2vwq08w4sBs42l2y8w6Mvs6/?ref=enews_SW&utm_source=SW&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=SW-EN11062013
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (2013). Municipal solid waste. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/index.htm