ByTrey Granger

Nov 20, 2017

For many Americans, their first memory of recycling involves cashing in collected aluminum cans or plastic soda bottles for a nickel apiece through a magical process known as a container deposit law, better known as the bottle bill.

These laws exist in 10 U.S. states and Guam, as well as numerous international countries. The nickel (or in the case of Michigan, dime) received upon turning in the container is actually a refund of the $.05 (or in Michigan, $.10) paid per container when it’s purchased. If the deposit is unredeemed, such as when consumers recycle containers in a curbside program, the state law determines what happens with the uncollected money.

Bottle bills started in America in 1971 when Oregon passed its Beverage Container Act, but there hasn’t been a new bottle bill enacted since Hawaii’s Hi-5 program in 2002. In the past 15 years, the only action seen on the bottle bill front was when Delaware repealed its program in 2010. Connecticut and Iowa are currently in talks to repeal their programs in 2018.

So why does a program so famous that it inspired a Seinfeld episode only exist in 20 percent of states? Why are existing laws in jeopardy of being repealed? Here are a few reasons to explain the change in perception of bottle bills.

Bottle Bill Opposition Mounts

Although consumers are the ones who end up footing the extra nickel every time an eligible container is purchased, bottle bills have a long line of opponents:

  • The Container Recycling Institute lists manufacturers including Anheuser-Busch, The Coca-Cola Company and Pepsi-Cola Company among those who oppose bottle bill legislation, in some cases funding opposition for newly proposed bills
  • Most states that enact bottle bills use retail stores for collection, and these grocery stores are required to provide space and staff to facilitate the deposit refunds without receiving a piece of the action
  • The programs are in essence funded by the state claiming any unredeemed deposits, leading to the possibility that if the return rate approaches 100 percent, the program will go bankrupt

States like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Texas have all introduced bottle bill legislation over the past few years, but for reasons like these, the bills have stalled them before ever coming up for a vote.

The last issue in particular has brought rise to what’s known as the “Delaware model” for future legislation. When Delaware repealed its program, it went from a $.05 per container refundable fee to a $.04 per container nonrefundable fee that funds state recycling grants. Consumers don’t get rewarded for recycling, but money raised helps improve the reach of recycling programs. Connecticut is pursuing this model with SB 996, which would reportedly generate $57 million annually.

Not Keeping Up with the Times

When Oregon passed its bottle bill in 1971, money had a different value than today. What cost $1 in 1971 would now cost $6.07 based on inflation alone, and yet there has not been an increase in the refund amount in any states.

To determine whether money talks, you simply need to look at Michigan and its $.10 deposit. That state had a 94.2 percent redemption rate for containers in 2014, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury. Compare that with Connecticut, which had a redemption rate of 56.5 percent in 2014, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.

This brings up debate as to whether the $.05 refund is enough to justify participation. While upping the deposit to $.25 would likely increase the redemption rate, it also severely penalizes consumers that recycle at the curb, since they would be paying a nearly 50 percent tax per container.

Creating an Inflated Recycling Market

One issue with container deposit laws is that people view the $.05 as the value of the material when recycled instead of a refund for money paid. This may lead consumers to think glass bottles are worth a nickel apiece when most curbside programs lose money collecting them. While aluminum cans are the most valuable packaging material you can recycle, without the bottle bill they would be worth less than $.02 per can when sold to a recycler.

So bottle bills falsely inflate the value of containers, which becomes extra confusing if a consumer moves from a bottle bill state to a non–bottle bill state. This is further complicated because only specific containers are covered by these laws. A glass beer bottle is likely included and worth $.05, but a glass wine bottle (despite containing more glass) is not and unable to be sold at all.

Growth in Curbside Recycling

As prevalent as curbside recycling is in today’s society, it may be surprising to learn that the first curbside program didn’t exist until 1974. This was three years after the first bottle bill was passed.

The increased availability of curbside recycling since the 1970s raises the question of whether container recycling is easy enough without the incentive to participate.

While the redemption rates in states with bottle bills shows that the majority of consumers are pursuing the deposit refund, the Aluminum Association reports that the aluminum can recycling rate nationwide was 66.7 percent in 2013. Most of those cans were collected because of the ease of collection and improved education, not to redeem a $.05 refund.

The Future of Bottle Bills

If history is an indication, we are unlikely to see any new states pass a container deposit law. It’s even more likely to see one or more of the existing bottle bills repealed in favor of a straight tax.

Feature photo: Adobe Stock

By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.