There are many ways to encourage people to change their behavior. You can educate them about why they should change a certain activity or habit they partake in, you can pass a law that forbids them from continuing with their undesirable behavior, or you can attempt to change the social norms surrounding that behavior in order to shame them into changing it, in addition to countless other strategies. But in today’s capitalist society, one strategy can be particularly effective: bribery.
Well, not exactly bribery, but providing a monetary incentive for people to change their behavior, such as an incentive for recycling. When it comes to encouraging people to recycle beverage bottles and cans, 10 U.S. states already have monetary incentives in place: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Guam, an organized, unincorporated U.S. territory, also has an economic incentive program in place.
These states have implemented what is commonly referred to as a “bottle bill,” also known as a container deposit law. The idea behind the bill is simple: a retailer, such as a grocery store, buys beverages from a beverage company, paying a deposit for each item purchased. The price of the deposit is included in what the consumer pays to purchase the bottle, usually equal to about 5 cents extra. The consumer can then return the empty container to the store, to a redemption center, or to a reverse vending machine like Tufts’ own Green Bean Machine, and their added deposit is refunded.
But this is only one incentive system, and it might not be the most effective one. Some countries in Europe use a different system whereby bottles and cans are collected and reused, rather than recycled. Whereas in the U.S., bottles and cans that are collected or returned to redemption centers are then transformed into new products, a process that requires significant energy and money, bottles that are collected in these select countries are washed, reused and resold for the same purpose.
Because the beverage retailers are then dependent on people returning their beverage containers, the refund is often worth more money, which leads to a higher collection/return rate. At the same time, this system may ingrain recycling more significantly in the minds and habits of the people living in these European countries, as one writer suggests in an article written for The Atlantic. The writer considers why 95% of all beverage containers with a deposit are recycled in Norway, noting that the value of the deposits are higher, but perhaps not high enough to account for such an impressive return rate.
“The deposits matter,” the writer says, “but it matters just as much that Norwegians never discarded the recycling habit.”
So why hasn’t the U.S. implemented this kind of program? And why haven’t the remaining 40 U.S. states without bottle bills established them?
The reason lies in the lobbying power of the beverage industry. Beverage container manufacturers and retail grocers lobby against bottle bills around the world because they fear that increasing the cost of their products–even by fives cents–would affect their profits. Consumers would be less willing to buy their products, they argue, due to the slight increase in price (even though consumers can get this money back). Some of the more powerful opponents of bottle bills include Anheuser Busch, the Coca Cola Company, the Pepsi-Cola Company, the International Bottled Water Association, the National Grocers Association and the American Beverage Association.
So what’s the solution? Could a nationwide bottle bill ever be enacted successfully? One could only hope so. In Massachusetts, 80% of beverage containers that are covered by deposits are recycled, compared with a 23% recycling rate for juice and water bottles, which aren’t covered by deposits. In Michigan, where consumers can receive 10 cents back per bottle recycled, the recycling rate between 1990 and 2008 was 97%! Clearly, these bills can make a huge difference.
In Massachusetts, State Senator Michael O. Moore and Representative Mark J. Cusack have proposed to repeal the state’s existing bottle bill and replace it with a temporary, multi-million dollar recycling and litter fund.
The bill calls for a 1 cent recycling fee on all beverage containers starting July 1, 2016, which “shall be in effect for three years to support the transition to a broader, more effective recycling system in the Commonwealth. The fee shall end on June 30, 2019 and sales of beverages in beverage containers will no longer be subject to the fee after that date.”
But a report released by the Container Recycling Institute found that under this bill, the beverage industry “would save nearly $174 million over the next decade… while the state and municipalities would lose a combined $435 million.”
In addition to encouraging recycling and helping consumers and municipalities, bottle bills also serve as a very small source of income for homeless people throughout American cities, as is shown in the documentary Redemption (2013). Of course, this does not serve as a long-term solution to homelessness or unemployment, but for people who depend on recycling bottles to redeem cash, having a bottle bill (or raising the value of the refund), encourages recycling while also helping vulnerable individuals, as this writer points out in The Boston Globe.