Deposit/Return Systems

Cutting Beverage Container Waste, A to Z:

Deposit/Return Systems

Deposit/Return systems place a small, fully-refundable deposit (a nickel or a dime) on bottles and cans. When consumers return their empties to a redemption/recycling center, supermarket, or “reverse vending machine,” their deposits are refunded. For most of the 20th century, soda and beer companies voluntarily operated deposit-return systems as a fail-safe way to get their valuable glass bottles back for washing and refilling. These systems were gradually phased out as bottling and distribution became centralized in the 1960s and 1970s. As the quantity and variety of one-way beverage container sales proliferated, so did ugly bottle and can litter.

To address the growing litter problem, in 1971, Oregon became the first state to adopt a mandatory deposit law with a nickel deposit on beer and soda. Vermont, Maine, Iowa, and Michigan followed suit in the 70’s, and Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Massachusetts adopted deposit laws (also called “bottle bills”) from 1980-1983, followed by California in 1986. During the sixteen-year hiatus which followed, dozens of states tried to pass bottle bills but were defeated by opposition from the well-funded beverage and grocery lobbies. Finally in 2002, Hawaii became the 11th U.S. state to pass a bottle bill.

Bottle bill states have achieved beverage container recycling rates of 70% to 95%, in contrast to the national average of only 35%, which is itself pulled up by the deposit states. The non-deposit states have an average container recycling rate of about 22%, according to the BEAR study in 2002. Deposit-return systems are the most successful recycling programs in the country. They are proven to achieve high recycling rates at no taxpayer expense.

The political obstacles to passing more bottles are formidable, but activists and public and elected officials in at least a dozen states are expected pass a new state law, or to update an existing law to cover non-carbonated beverages in 2006. The beverage, retail, and packaging industries oppose mandatory deposits, and have thus far shown no interest in adopting a voluntary deposit system, as in they did in the past.

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