Plastic beverage bottles are littering our neighborhoods, clogging storm drains, polluting our waterways, and piling up in the landfill, which is estimated to reach capacity by 2034 if we don’t change course. Unfortunately, curbside recycling is not effectively capturing this waste stream, and many of those containers that do make it onto a recycling truck end up in the trash or “downcycled” (made into a lower quality product).
Luckily, 10 states, including our neighbors in Massachusetts and Connecticut, are currently modeling a solution: a container deposit law, or “bottle bill.” In states with a bottle bill, customers pay a small deposit on each container they purchase which is returned to them when they bring the empty bottle back to a participating retailer or redemption center to be recycled. The costs of handling the empty containers are paid for by the beverage companies or distributors in the form of a handling fee.
When done right, a strong bottle bill will increase recycling rates, reduce litter, fight plastic pollution in our waterways, and incentivize the beverage industry to implement a more sustainable model with bottles and containers that are easier to recycle or even reuse.
The Costs of Single-Use Disposable Bottles:
Currently, it is cheaper for beverage companies to make bottles out of virgin plastic than reuse bottles or use recycled material. But it isn’t cheaper for Rhode Islanders.
- We pay for the disposal of these single-use bottles in the form of local taxes funding waste and recycling programs.
- Plastic bottles litter our streets, pollute waterways, and break down into microplastics.
Plastic is a petrochemical product, and its consumption contributes to climate change.
Under our state’s current recycling system, the beverage industry has no urgency to solve these problems but instead pushes these costs onto municipalities. A bottle bill is a form of “extended producer responsibility” with a proven track record of success that holds beverage companies responsible for the entire lifecycle of the bottles they produce. The handling fees paid by the beverage companies cover the costs of handling, storing, sorting, and transporting the empty bottles.
Benefits of a Bottle Bill:
States with bottle bills have a higher rate of recycling because consumers are incentivized by the deposit to make sure that containers are properly returned. Nine of the ten states with the highest recycling rates for PET bottles and aluminum cans are states with deposit return systems. Currently, Rhode Island recycles 36% of the PET bottles we consume, but Maine, a state with a strong bottle bill, recycles 78%!
The containers collected in a deposit return system are cleaner and better sorted than those collected by curbside recycling, so they are more likely to actually be recycled into a product of the same quality rather than downcycled, incinerated, or sent to the landfill. Right now in Rhode Island, almost half of the glass that is “recycled” is not actually being turned into new bottles but is instead being used as landfill cover or in road construction. When bottles are downcycled, they don’t reduce the demand for more virgin materials to manufacture more bottles. A strong bottle bill makes it more likely that the same raw material will be made into a bottle again!
In a deposit return system, recycling bottles on the go is easier and more convenient. Because retail locations are also redemption centers, customers have options to properly recycle beverage containers when they aren’t at home, which is where many single-use beverage containers are used.
Deposit return systems can reduce litter! When every empty bottle has a value attached to it, people are less likely to toss them away and more likely to pick bottles up off the ground.
Additionally, a deposit return system for recycling can also become a system for REUSING bottles. Not long ago, glass soda bottles and milk bottles, for example, were returned for reuse. We don’t need to settle for a system where we pollute local waterways to get fracked gas out of the ground, pollute local communities to turn that gas into plastic, drink from a plastic bottle for ten minutes, and then pollute yet another community when the bottle is disposed of or tossed on the ground. We need to move towards a sustainable, circular economy.
(Recycling stats are from: 50 States of Recycling. Ball. March 2021)