Commentary, Opinion

The bottle bill is a drag on recycling

By Bob Cappadona

In mid-March, several states gave redemption centers and retailers the option to temporarily stop accepting bottles and cans. They advised households to stockpile their water bottles and soda cans for several weeks, or to simply toss them in their curbside recycling bins.

While it is unclear how many redemption centers chose to shut down during the height of Covid-19, one thing is clear: in a world without redemption centers, bottles and cans would continue to be recycled.

If you live in a bottle bill state and you have curbside recycling service, did you know you are paying twice for recycling? Did you also know that for any deposit-eligible containers that you do not return for redemption, your state government keeps the $0.05, such that it essentially becomes another part of your state tax?

You pay once for the modern curbside service that handles an extensive list of household recyclables, and again for the deposit program that applies only to select bottles and cans. Comprehensive curbside and drop off recycling programs generally target over 30% of a household’s waste stream, while bottle bills target less than 2%.

The result is an inefficient and wasteful system that produces more environmental harm than good.

Progressive reform of these programs is needed and would create real economic and environmental value. Covid-19 has forced us to adjust and implement new behaviors that benefit the greater good. Many of those new behaviors will most likely become part of our “new normal.”

Bottle bills should certainly fall into that category, here’s why:

Eliminating bottle bills would direct valuable plastic and aluminum into curbside recycling bins, reducing the net cost of recycling, and delivering substantial reductions in municipal recycling costs. These savings could then be invested in a new wave of recycling and reuse infrastructure to yield new environmental benefits.

The net result of this change would reduce the cost of curbside recycling programs. If the contamination rate of the inbound recyclables simultaneously dropped below 5% — due to household compliance with acceptable materials lists — the cost of curbside recycling would drop even further. The potential cost savings depending on the size of the community could be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands per year.

Recent challenges ranging from China restricting its imports of recyclables, to the Covid-19 pandemic are reminders that we must always be innovating and developing better ways to do things. After directing bottles and cans to curbside recycling, how could we put redemption spaces to better and more modern uses? Could they be used for batteries and electronics? Could they become collection points for flexible film plastic? Could they support waste reduction and reuse initiatives?

Bottle bills attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. They may have served a purpose in the past when recycling infrastructure and services were virtually non-existent. Now, the expense and redundancy resulting from bottle bills and the redemption system mean it’s time to rethink this approach. Bottle bills can — and should — fade away, and recycling will not only survive, but expand and thrive.

Bob Cappadona is vice president of resource solutions at Casella Waste Systems, Inc.

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