The idea of charging a refundable deposit for beverage containers is not new. It was created decades ago as a way of motivating consumers to return empty bottles so they could be washed and refilled. In the 1930s, steel beverage cans were introduced. By the 1960s, some 47 percent of beer was sold in non-refundable cans or bottles, resulting in a growing litter problem. The soft drink industry more slowly shifted to non-refundable containers, but none the less, the result of this trend was an ever increasing flow of solid waste towards landfills.
One reaction to this trend was the creation of “bottle bills.” A bottle bill is a container deposit law. Such legislation promotes return of empty containers, allowing consumers to recover their deposit. In the course of this activity, a higher rate of container recovery results.
The motivation to recycle is based on the flow of money. When the retailer purchases beverages from the supplier, a deposit is paid on each bottle or can bought. In turn, the consumer then pays a deposit to the retailer when purchasing the drink. Subsequently, the consumer returns the empty container to a return center, retailer or automated collection machine for refund. The business collecting the empty containers is reimbursed for the deposit, in addition to a handling fee.
The cost of the handling fee can be offset by the sale of scrap containers. Take the case of British Columbia, which has a container return deposit, as well as other recycling programs for electronics, tire recycling and other programs. British Columbia has a container deposit system. Contractors perform collection services, and send containers to central locations for accumulation. From there, materials are sold in the international market to best generate revenue. The most profitable recovery Is from aluminum cans. Glass cullet from bottles is sold to a glass insulation manufacturer in Alberta, or to a glass recycler in Seattle, while juice boxes and other tetra containers are currently baled and sent to Asian locations. Because most recycling facilities require high volumes, British Columbia does not generate a sufficient quantity of material to support local processing. One exception to this is with regards to plastic. HDPE and PET is recycled in British Columbia and neighboring Alberta, respectively.
One key area of funding the program is the "unclaimed" or "unredeemed" deposits that can amount to millions of dollars a year. For example, in states such as Michigan and Massachusetts, unclaimed deposits have been ruled as as "abandoned” As such, this revenue has been earmarked for the financial support of recycling.
Why Bottle Bills?
Bottle bills provide a motivation for consumers to return their empty containers. In terms of why focusing on containers versus other solid waste, it is a matter of volume. Beverage containers can compose 40 – 60 percent of litter, and as such, bottle bills have been proven to provide a significant motivation to divert them from landfills. This outcome provides a much more energy efficient opportunity to create new containers from recycled ones.
The 1960s saw a dramatic shift from refillable soft drink ‘deposit’ bottles to ‘no-deposit, no-return, one-way’ bottles and cans. A solid waste problem emerged from this change, prompting bill makers to promote legislative changes to encourage container return. Sixty percent of beer market share was in single use packaging by 1970, while one-way containers had grown from just 5 percent in 1960 to 47 percent of the soft drink market during that same period. In 1970, British Columbia established the first container recovery system in North America.
In the U.S., Oregon passed the first deposit law in 1971. Ten states had enacted some form of bottle bill by 1986. Bottle bill jurisdictions have been extremely effective in increasing recovery rates.
Currently, ten U.S. states and eight Canadian provinces have established deposit laws requiring refundable deposits on a range of beverage containers. They have proven to be extremely effective in diverting material from landfills. In some jurisdictions, the scope of containers recovered has continued to expand, such as through British Columbia’s Return-It program.