American consumers have increasingly favored recycling to benefit their community and the environment. One of the best ways to promote recycling is with "bottle bills," which is another way of saying “container deposit laws.” A container deposit law requires a minimum refundable deposit on beer, soft drink and other beverage containers in order to ensure a high rate of recycling or reuse. After learning that only ten states have container deposit laws, I decided to investigate why this is the case.
I am sure that everyone would agree with the following benefits of recycling cited by the Environment Protection Agency's website:
- Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators;
- Conserves natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals;
- Prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials;
- Saves energy;
- Helps create new well-paying jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries in the United States.
The three steps to recycling materials listed on the website seem simple:
- Step 1: Collection and Processing – Recyclables are collected by curbside collection, drop-off centers, and deposit or refund programs. Next, "recyclables are sent to a recovery facility to be sorted, cleaned, and processed into materials that can be used in manufacturing. Recyclables are bought and sold just like raw materials would be, and prices go up and down depending on supply and demand in the United States and the world."
- Step 2: Manufacturing - More and more of today's products are being manufactured with recycled content.
- Step 3: Purchasing New Products Made from Recycled Materials- There are thousands of products that contain recycled content.
The one hitch in these steps is that it takes enough recyclable material to make it profitable to manufacture products out of recycled material or make new products that utilize recycled content, such as carpeting, park benches, and even asphalt. The question is do we have enough recycled material to make the clear water bottles that could be endlessly recycled?
When you think of all of the trillions of clear water bottles purchased in the U. S. by American consumers, you would think that there would be more than enough material to keep making water bottles out of recycled material without having to use any virgin material. However, since there are only 10 states with bottle deposit laws, this is not the case. These states are: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. Oregon was the first state to successfully pass a bottle deposit law in 1971, Vermont was the second state to pass a bottle deposit law in 1973, and Hawaii was the most recent in 2002. Most of the other states passed laws in the 1980s. Delaware passed a law in 1982, but it was repealed in 2009. The deposit is 5 cents for every state except Michigan, where it is 10 cents.
Tennessee proposed a bottle bill in 2009 and 2010 that failed to pass even though ten county commissions voted to endorse the bill. It would have required a five-cent deposit on beverage containers. The recycling rate in Tennessee is 10 percent, which was projected to increase to 80 percent with a bottle bill. Discarded bottles and cans are the primary contributor to litter in Tennessee.
Texas attempted to introduce a bottle bill (SB 635) into legislation in 2011, but lost by a vote of 101 to 40. It would have required a ten-cent deposit on beverage containers under 24 fl. oz. and 15 cents for larger containers. Recycling promoters filled a new bill in 2013, SB 645, but it was left pending in subcommittee on 4/22/2013. Two new bills have been introduced in Texas in the 2015 legislative cycle ─ HB 2425 Regarding Refundable Deposits and SB 1450 Calling for Refundable Deposits.
Why is there so much opposition to bottle bills?
According to the Institute, "Bottle bill opponents include beverage container manufacturers, soft drink bottlers, beer, wine and liquor distributors and retail grocers. As ‘new age’ drink containers are targeted for inclusion in existing bottle bills, juice, sports drink and bottled water manufacturers have joined the anti-bottle bill forces..."
Major opponents of bottle bills are:
- Anheuser Busch
- The Coca Cola Company
- Pepsi-Cola Company
- Can Manufacturers Institute
- Distilled Spirits Council of the United States
- Food Marketing Institute
- International Bottled Water Association
- National Beer Wholesalers Association
- Grocery Manufacturers Association
- National Food Processors Association
- National Grocers Association
- American Beverage Association
The Container Recycling Institute claims that these companies and organizations have spent huge sums of money "to defeat ballot initiatives over the past twenty years, with industry opponents outspending proponents by as much as 30:1."
During the last three years the three leading container trade groups (Aluminum Association, the Glass Packaging Institute, and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers) have changed their position and now support bottle bills because of the success of existing bottle bills.
What are the reasons given for opposing bottle bills? The Container Recycling Institute lists the following reasons on a page titled Myths and Facts:
- Deposits aren’t needed where there is curbside recycling.
- Deposit systems target only a small part of the waste stream (less than 3% of municipal solid waste (MSW) by weight).
- Deposit systems address a small portion of litter: 7 to 25 percent.
- Deposit return is inconvenient (consumers prefer home curbside bins).
- Deposits rob curbside programs of valuable aluminum can revenue.
- Deposits are more expensive than other recycling programs.
- Deposits are a tax” and increase the price of beverages.
- Deposit returns are expensive for distributors.
I live in California, which is one of the bottle bill states, and we also have curbside recycling in the city of San Diego. I prefer to separate out the containers for which I paid a deposit and take them to a recycling center to get my deposit money back. In the major cities of California, stores do not take the bottles back. You can take them to recycling centers conveniently located in the parking lots of neighborhood shopping centers or to municipal waste management landfills where privately owned recycling centers are located.
I do not understand how anyone could consider a deposit fee a "tax" because it is refunded. None of the sales taxes I pay are ever refunded to me. Also, under container deposit systems, the cost of recycling is borne by producers and consumers, not by government and taxpayers as is the case for curbside recycling programs.
The Container Recycling Institute says that beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter. Because of the bottle deposit law in California, you rarely see any bottles as litter. Homeless and poor people pick up all of the bottles that could be litter on streets and sidewalks to turn them in to get the deposit money. States that have bottle bills "showed reductions in beverage container litter ranging from 69% to 84%."
In January 2015, a report was released, "Waste and Opportunity 2015: Environmental Progress and Challenges in Food, Beverage, and Consumer Goods Packaging" by Conrad B. MacKerron, Senior Vice President of As You Sow, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing environmental and social corporate responsibility. The Project Editor was Darby Hoover, Senior Resource Specialist of The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists.
The report revealed that "With an overall recycling rate of 34.5 percent and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51 percent, the United States lags behind many other developed countries." With regard to beverage recycling, the report states, "Major beverage companies like Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters NA, and PepsiCo are taking positive individual actions to boost bottle and can recycling. Still, most brands support neither a container deposit nor an EPR (extended producer responsibility) scheme to boost recycling—two proven ways to increase container recycling."
With regard to beverage containers, PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the material most frequently used and thus is "currently the most recycled plastic material, yet only 30 percent of PET bottles are recycled. But since 94 percent of the U.S. population has access to PET collection, there is much more PET that could be recovered. "High demand and limited supply for recycled PET (rPET) demonstrates the economic potential of increasing recycling rates if materials can be recovered without significant contamination." However, "U.S. reclaimers reported average yield losses of 31 percent for PET bales from curbside programs and 25 percent for bales from deposit programs" due to contamination by other recycled materials." The report recommended expanding the use of PET to other types of packaging such as clamshell food containers to increase the supply of rPET.
One good reason to expand container deposit laws is stated in the report: "Recycling also helps create new, well-paying jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries. The firms that process metals, paper, electronics, rubber, plastic, glass, and textiles represent 137,000 direct jobs and $32 billion in revenue. When suppliers and indirect impact are factored in, the industry supports nearly half a million jobs and generates a total of $90 billion annually in economic activity. If we increased the U.S. national recycling rate to 75 percent by 2030, we would generate nearly 1.5 million new jobs."
Other key findings of the report were:
- Up to 50% of the U.S. population may lack convenient access to curbside recycling for commonly recycled materials like bottles, cans, and newspapers.
- Companies are required to pay for collection of materials in Europe, Canada, and other markets, but fight accepting that responsibility in the U.S.
- Many companies also fight container deposit legislation – the most successfully demonstrated method to increase recycling rates, yet only operating in 10 states.
I agree with one of the recommendations of the report: "Increasing our ability to recycle packaging successfully will lead us closer to developing a circular economy in which raw materials are captured and processed to re-enter commerce many times over, thus increasing resource efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on nonrenewable natural resources."
Since clear PET plastic bottles can be recycled nearly endlessly, one of the best ways to accomplish this is to pass bottle bills in more states in the U. S., so we can increase the domestic supply of recycled PET. We also need to pass legislation to keep recyclers from selling the PET containers to China so that American companies like Plastic Technologies Inc. won't have to buy recycled PET from other countries.