Too many containers are being burned, buried, littered

An expanded bottle deposit law could help in climate fight

CLIMATE CHANGE is wreaking havoc on our planet, particularly in the Northeast region. A recent report from the United Nations found that climate change is accelerating at a shocking clip. The UN’s bad news comes on the heels of research showing the Northeast is warming faster than average global temperatures, putting the region at a heightened risk of extreme weather, storms, and rising sea levels.

Time is not on our side. The environmental implications of waste-based manufacturing and overconsumption demand urgent action. Slowing global warming requires decisive movement from policymakers, a concerted effort from all Northeasterners, and new initiatives and programs. We must also invest in proven solutions to divert waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as deposit return systems, or bottle bills. Right now, modernized bottle bills are moving through legislatures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New York.

What do beverage containers have to do with climate change? Wasting containers is no different than burning coal, and every beverage container wasted increases our carbon footprint. We use energy and generate carbon emissions in the extraction and processing of raw materials, their transportation, and their disposal. Every year in the US, 140 billion beverage containers— glass, metal, and plastic—are lost to litter, incinerators, and landfills. Even though 73 percent of Americans reportedly have access to recycling, we still have only a 37 percent container recycling rate—a rate that hasn’t increased for 30 years.

In the Northeast alone, more than 400 beverage containers per person are buried, burned, or littered each year. While the region is home to five of the nation’s ten states with bottle bills, the laws are out of date and industry has resisted reform. Modernized bottle bills that incentivize consumers and make it easy to return beverage containers are the way forward.

So how does it work? A modernized deposit return system would include more types of beverages, increase deposit value to 10 cents, and establish an accessible recycling system that is transparent, uniform, and accountable. Financed by the beverage industry, a modern system would save state taxpayers and municipalities millions each year. Countries throughout Europe have instituted these reforms to great success, and in some US states, updated bottle bills are making a difference: When Oregon raised its deposit value from 5 cents to 10 cents, its redemption rate jumped from 64 percent to 81 percent in a year.

For the first time, players from across the supply chain—industry, advocates, government—came together to support and inform an independent study by Reloop North America explaining how deposit return systems can be optimized to bring environmental, economic, and social benefits. The study’s data make a compelling case for immediate legislative action to fully modernize bottle bills in five states—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. If implemented, over 24.5 billion beverage containers—roughly 1.9 million tons of material—would be recycled each year in this region. Modernized systems would reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 550,000 metric tons (the equivalent of taking 120,000 cars off Northeast roads annually), save taxpayers and municipalities across the five states up to $160 million, and create over 2,700 local jobs.

Modernizing these systems, or adopting new bottle bills in Rhode Island and other states, would enable us to elevate beverage container redemption and recycling rates to 90 percent, satisfy increasing demand for quality materials, intercept materials currently excluded, move from single-use to refillable containers, and serve as a nationwide model for other regions to enhance existing or adopt new systems based on high-performance principles.

An equitable transition will be critically important: The phase-in of modernized policies will result in approximately $822 million in unclaimed deposits in the first two years — funds that could be reinvested into struggling municipal recycling programs, existing infrastructure, training, and other key needs. State agencies, too, would get the resources they need — more than $44 million annually — to effectively regulate modernized deposit return systems.

Meet the Author

Kirstie Pecci

Director of Zero Waste Project, Conservation Law Foundation
Meet the Author

Elizabeth Balkan

Director, Reloop North America
It’s time to put our energy into a solution that is proven, achievable, and enables us and future generations to live in healthy, sustainable, and just communities. We must act with urgency to modernize bottle bills throughout the Northeast region.

Kirstie Pecci is director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation and Elizabeth Balkan is director of Reloop North America.