EarthTalk: Recycling

Dear EarthTalk: The soda bottle I'm holding only lists a few U.S. states and deposit amounts on it. Aren't more than just a few states requiring that bottles be returned for recycling? — Calvin Terry, Castine, ME

Currently 11 American states have “bottle bill” laws on the books that require a deposit of usually five or ten cents on beer and soda cans and bottles that can be redeemed when empties are returned to the store. The state of Oregon pioneered such legislation, passing the first U.S. bottle bill back in 1971. Hawaii has the newest one, enacted in 2002. Meanwhile, all but two of Canada’s 13 provinces (the remote Northwest Territories and Nunavut) have bottle bills. As with the American laws, Canada’s provinces require deposits on all beverage containers other than those containing milk.

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI), an advocacy group based in Washington, DC, works for the passage of new bottle bills and the strengthening of existing ones. According to CRI, bottle bills make sense because they encourage recycling and, in conjunction with curbside recycling programs, extend the life of landfills by keeping cans and bottles out. Indeed, recycling rates in states with bottle bills can be as much as three times higher than in states without them.

Such programs also help reduce litter. Studies have shown that beverage container legislation has reduced total roadside litter by as much as 64 percent in regions with bottle bills. Another documented benefit has been a reduction in incidences of glass laceration, simply because fewer glass bottles end up broken on sidewalks, streets and in kids’ play areas. One Massachusetts study attributed a 60 percent decline in reported childhood glass lacerations once the state’s bottle bill went into effect.

Despite these benefits, however, many beverage manufacturers oppose bottle bills, arguing that the five to ten cents added to the price of their products deters customers even though the deposits are redeemable. These companies have effectively squelched bottle bills in many U.S. states through the sheer power of their lobbying efforts. Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Pepsi and others have spent millions fighting bottle bills, complaining that such legislation duplicates community recycling programs already in place.

But CRI says the argument has been “wrongly cast in either/or terms,” that refundable deposits and curbside recycling programs are not mutually exclusive and should be part of a comprehensive approach to recycling: “If the goal is to maximize recovery of recyclables [and] reduce reliance on raw materials for manufacturing new containers…then a combination of recovery options should be employed to ensure the highest…recovery rates possible.”

Beverage sales are growing, especially bottled water and other non-carbonated drinks. And the waste has been growing as well. According to CRI, some 118 billion aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers were discarded and not recycled in 2002 alone, more than double the number 20 years earlier. The main issue is really who should pay the costs of recycling. Refundable deposits are fair, says CRI, because they put the costs on the producers and consumers of the beverages instead of on the local communities and taxpayers.

CONTACT: Container Recycling Institute,

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