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The power of a nickel: Bottle bills and producer responsibility

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Quick quiz: Which states give you 10 cents back for every redeemable can or bottle returned to a redemption center? If you’ve ever closely studied your drink labels, you might know that it’s Oregon and Michigan. Follow up question: Which states have the highest recycling rates for these products?

To nobody’s surprise, those two states are at the top of the list, with Michigan averaging a remarkable 89 percent redemption rate. The rest of the list is filled with other states with container deposit laws – commonly known as “bottle bills” – that pay consumers to return empty bottles and cans for recycling. That small incentive, often just a nickel, really works. The 10 states with a bottle bill recycle around 60% of their beverage containers, while states without one only average about 24%.

At a time when America’s recycling infrastructure is failing and plastic trash is fouling our oceans and ruining our lands, the idea at the core of the bottle bill – that producers should ultimately take responsibility for the trash that results from the products they make or sell – is worth a fresh look.

Oregon passed the nation’s first bottle bill in 1971 in response to bottles and cans clogging the state’s highways and waterways. Bottle bills have since proven remarkably effective as a litter control measure as well as a way to spur recycling.

When you put a bottle into a reverse vending machine, the five to 15 cents you’re refunded comes from a deposit you originally paid as part of the purchase price of the bottle. The bottle itself is collected and returned to the distributor.

Beverage producers have opposed bottle bills because they increase the apparent cost of their product and make them – rather than consumers and society – responsible for dealing with the waste. Without producer responsibility, corporations can sell mountains of single-use plastic and other environmentally damaging products, safe in the knowledge that it’s the public – and the environment – that will bear the cost of disposing of all that waste.

Producer responsibility programs turn the tables by requiring manufacturers to capture disposal costs, making producers partners in moving toward a circular economy. Our recent report, Break the Waste Cycle, describes the success of these programs across the U.S. and around the world. In Germany, a separate, producer-funded collection system for household packaging waste recycles around 97% of all packaging waste. And in the U.S., narrowly targeted producer responsibility programs have been tried and tested across the country, with 33 states having at least one such law for hard-to-recycle products such as paint, mattresses or electronics.

Producer responsibility policies give products at the end of their lives value instead of cost. For example, glass collected in mixed, single-stream recycling can be a burden because of its weight and the potential for contamination, resulting in just 40% of the glass collected in curbside recycling programs ending up being recycled into new products. But 90% of separately recycled glass is turned into new products, making glass collected through container deposit programs a much more valuable commodity.

Bottle bills are the most widespread type of producer responsibility program, available and recognizable to millions of Americans. But bottle bills have proven tough to improve once passed. Dozens of state measures in the past decade to institute a bottle bill, increase the deposit or expand one to cover new materials have failed in the face of opposition from plastic- and soda-makers. Since 1987, only one state, Hawaii, has passed a new bottle bill, and one state got rid of its law (Delaware, as part of a shift to curbside recycling).

In Break the Waste Cycle we look at how states, increasingly inundated with plastic trash, are debating extended producer responsibility programs that would go well beyond specific product categories. In September, Washington’s legislature ordered a report on reducing plastic packaging and waste that recommended instituting a producer responsibility program for all consumer packaging and paper, a major source of waste that could be managed by producers rather than municipalities. The report also recommended simultaneously establishing a bottle bill for all beverage containers and establishing recycled content requirements for plastic packaging that would drive a market for materials collected for recycling.

Working together, these policies would create a positive feedback loop, where producers create easily recyclable products made with recycled content. Policies like bottle bills complete that circular economy, connecting consumers who recycle the products with producers who need the recycled content.

The crisis of plastic trash has become too big to ignore. As legislatures and Congress begin to grapple with how to address the crisis, they should start by seeking to build on approaches that have already proven to be successful. Bottle bills and other producer responsibility programs can help create the incentives necessary to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place – and to turn materials that currently wind up in the trash or on our beaches and roadsides into tomorrow’s products.

Photo credit defotoberg via Shutterstock