All About Beverage Container Waste

Lost Economic Opportunity

Lost scrap value | Cleanup Costs

$2.1 billion in buried scrap value in 2005

Estimated Beverage Container Wasting in 2005

Units (billion)
Pounds (billion)
Market value*
(¢ per lb)
Wasted scrap value ($ million)
#1 (PET) plastic bottles
$ 675
#2 (HDPE) plastic bottles
$ 209
Aluminum cans
$ 1,216
Glass bottles
$ 34
Total wasted
$ 2,184
* Price is average for 2005, FOB.  PET, HDPE, Aluminum: personal communication with Connecticut Metals, 12/28/05 and Jerry Powell, Resource Recycling, 12/29/05.

Economic value of wasted used containers

In 2005, the forgone scrap value of 135 billion wasted beverage bottles and cans exceeded $2.1 billion. This means that had these containers been recycled instead of trashed, they would have been worth over $2.1 billion on the market.

  • The most valuable component of unrecycled beverage containers was the 55 billion discarded used aluminum beverage cans (UBCs), weighing in at about 810,000 tons. The scrap value for UBCs averaged about 75¢ per pound in 2005, and has already broken the $1/lb mark in 2006. Had these 55 billion cans been recycled, they could have generated as much as $1.2 billion in revenue. By comparison, Quebec’s Alouette group recently spent US$1.23 billion to increase the annual capacity of the Sept-Iles aluminum smelter from 245,000 to 550,000 tons.
  • Three billion pounds of #1 PET plastic bottles were also landfilled, littered, or incinerated. At an average market value of almost 22¢, this would have fetched $675 million had it been recycled. There is a strong market demand for reclaimed PET, since PET imports by Chinese and Asian buyers continue to grow. Domestic PET reclaimers would also benefit from an increased supply of plastic bottles, because for the last two years, they have been having increasing difficulty meeting their feedstock needs due to constricted supplies and high prices. Were the amount of PET collected in the U.S. to increase dramatically, new business opportunities and jobs could be created for American industry.
  • #2 HDPE bottles--used for natural juices, water and milk jugs, and for detergent and other personal care items—are even more valuable than PET, averaging 31.2¢ per pound in 2005. Fewer of them are purchased and discarded, however, so the total wasted market value was $259 last year.
  • Glass bottles.  About 7 million tons of glass bottles are wasted in the U.S. annually.  Scrap prices vary tremendously depending on collection and processing methods, and on proximity to market. Bottle and fiberglass manufacturers value quality, so uncontaminated color-sorted amber or flint  bottles from a deposit state, for example, might command as much as $65 per ton from a processor in the midwest, California, or the Northeast. Green glass is generally less valuable because green bottles are only produced in a couple of locations in North America. Color-sorted glass from dual-stream curbside programs might fetch $25 per ton, while mixed-color glass from dual or single stream programs may only be worth $5 per ton. If the curbside mix is highly contaminanted, or if there is no glass plant close by, it may be worth nothing at all--leading to its use as an "alternative daily landfill cover." With these variations in mind, the value of glass that is currently being wasted nationwide ranges from about $30 to $400 million per year.

However, these are gross potential revenues, and do not account for the marginal cost of collecting containers that are irretrievable under today’s real-life social and institutional conditions.

Litter cleanup costs

Public Costs: Beverage containers comprise 40% to 60% of roadside litter in non-deposit states. This litter is not only unsightly; it is costly to clean up. Litter must be cleaned up—usually by hand—whether it is strewn along a city street or a country road, or in public parks, forests, and beaches. Clean-up programs are most often funded by taxes, and unless litter is prevented at the source, it will recur.

In Virginia, as in many other states, the beverage industry supported a litter tax as an alternative to a bottle bill. Despite the $1.8 million annual litter tax and anti-litter laws, the Virginia Department of Transportation spent an estimated $6.6 million in 2001 to pick up litter on state-owned roads and highways.

Down on the Farm: The president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union has estimated that the costs of litter-related damage average $938 per farm per year. These costs include equipment damage, feed contamination, crop losses, and livestock deaths from ingesting broken glass and cans.[i]

Finally, private property owners incur clean-up costs as well.

Refundable Deposits are the Most Effective Way to Reduce Litter

Bottle bills were originally enacted to reduce beverage container litter. Government funded studies conducted pre- and post-bottle bill in seven states showed reductions in beverage container litter ranging from 69% to 84%, and reductions in total litter ranging from 30% to 65%, as the table below shows.

Litter Reduction after implementation of a bottle bill
State Beverage Container Litter Reduction Total Litter Reduction
New York 70–80%1 30%1
Oregon 83%2 47%2
Vermont 76%3 35%3
Maine 69–77%4 34–64%4
Michigan 84%5 41%5
Iowa 76%6 39%6
Massachusetts n/a7 30–35%7



i. Larry Breech. “U.S. Bottle Bill Deserves Support.” Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, October 21, 2002.

1. NY: “Final Report of the Temporary State Commission on Returnable Beverage Containers.” March 1985. Also,  “New York State Returnable Container Act: A Preliminary Study.” School of Business and    Public Administration of Long Island University, 1984.  

2. OR: “Oregon’s Bottle Bill: The 1982 Report.” Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. 

3. VT: “Report to the Congress by the Comptroller General of the United States:Potential Effects of a National Mandatory Deposit on Beverage Containers.” U.S. General Accounting Office, December 1977.

4. ME: “Report by the Comptroller General of the United States: States’ Experience With Beverage Container Deposit Laws Shows Positive Benefits,” U.S. General Accounting Office, December 1980.

5. MI: “Michigan Roadside Litter Composition Survey, Final Report.” Michigan Department of Transportation Maintenance Division, December 1979.

6. IA: “Litter Survey.”  Iowa Department of Transportation, Highway Division, April 1980.

7. MA: “Bottle Bills in the 1980’s: A Handbook for Effective Citizen Action.”   Environmental Action Foundation, August 1987.