Bottle bills, known as deposit return systems (DRS), work. Research by the British government found that countries that impose a return value on bottles or cans increase collection rates to between 80% and 95%, improving recycling rates. But the beverage industry has expressed concerns about potential adverse effects on sales. Who’s right?
Some beverage companies argue that DRS will lead to higher business costs, which will be passed on as higher retail prices for consumers, resulting in lower sales. However, according to new research, these arguments overlook critical factors that mitigate cost increases and fail to consider the cost savings associated with DRS implementation. But some beverage packaging makers are taking up the DRS cause. The Can Manufacturers Institute and Aluminum Association have joined forces with consumer advocacy and environmental organizations to lobby for bottle bills across the country.
“Reimagining the Bottle Bill,” new research from Reloop, a policy consultancy that works with governments, businesses, and nonprofits, found that DRS helps reduce costs for businesses and benefits everyone in the long run. Reloop reports that while access to curbside recycling has reached 73% of U.S. homes, the collection of beverage containers, among the easiest items to recycle, remains stubbornly below 40% of the volume of bottles produced. The National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) recently claimed that recyclers collected 36.8% of PET (#1 plastic) beverage bottles produced for the U.S. market as of 2020.
We can do better.
Pennies for Your Empties
DRS works like this: When you buy a drink in a plastic or metal container, you pay a little extra as a deposit. When you finish your drink, you can return the empty container to a store and get your deposit back. That way, bottles and cans are recycled, and we produce less trash.
When deposit programs are combined with extended producer responsibility laws that require producers to contribute to funding recycling collection and processing infrastructure in a state, cities’ cost for recycling programs declines, creating savings for citizens that add to the economic benefits of DRS, Reloop argued in its report.
Yet, the beverage industry says DRS can make drinks more costly. They claim retailers and wholesalers will have to spend more time and money handling empty containers. But Reloop found that in well-run DRS, the money from recycling those containers and unclaimed deposits covers the costs. Container deposits won’t make drinks more expensive.
In the following video, Reloop and the Container Recycling Institute explain the environmental impact of beverage container litter and the benefits of deposit return systems.
Look at the Benefits
Hawaii, for example, implemented a bottle bill in 2005 and by 2008 reported a 60% reduction in beverage bottles found in its litter, according to The Abell Foundation, which focuses on improving the health and economy of the city of Baltimore. Reloop reports that modernizing the DRS infrastructure in the Northeast would improve recycling rates to between 65% and 92% — capturing 1.2 billion beverage containers that currently end life in a landfill — while adding a cost of only one cent per container across the entire system. In Maine, which Reloop says has the most comprehensive DRS program in the U.S., 84% of containers are recycled.
DRS helps save money in other ways. For example, it reduces the costs of recycling and cleaning up litter. That’s a win for the environment and taxpayers. And remember, many things can affect beverage sales, like weather, the economy, and taxes — not just DRS. After Norway implemented DRS in 1999, beverage sales increased. When Germany introduced DRS, beverage sales went up, too, while neighboring countries without DRS reported that sales went down. Similar patterns were reported in Oregon.
Deposit Programs Are Good for Business
Deposit programs make recyclable beverage packaging more attractive to shoppers. Wunderman Thompson, a marketing agency, surveyed consumers and found that “81% of respondents say that if brands make it easier to reuse or recycle their products and packaging, they are more likely to make a purchase.” If your grocer says they will not support a bottle bill because it could raise prices, which is not valid, tell them that eight out of 10 of their customers are more likely to return to shop with them if they provide deposit-return services.
Looking closely at the facts, DRS is not to blame for declining sales. There are many other factors at play. Deposit return systems are a smart way to help people recycle more, reduce waste, and prevent plastic pollution on land and in the oceans. Deposits don’t make drinks more expensive and might even provide an incentive to buy certain products.
Steps You Can Take
If you don’t live in one of the 10 states where deposit programs are in force today, contact your state legislators and ask that they introduce and support bottle bill legislation. BottleBill.org provides a useful guide to starting a bottle bill campaign in your state.
Start your local campaign by visiting several grocers, ask to speak to the managers and tell them you are considering where you will do your grocery shopping. Share your desire to see a bottle bill and suggest their company join in the call for modern DRS programs in your state. And ask if they would take the first step by providing bottle and can drop-off bins. If you succeed, let Earth911 know so we can add the store to the Recycling Locator.