Bottle Deposit Bills and the New Technology That Can Make Them Work

By: John A. Lanier

Several states in America utilize bottle deposits and refunds to incentivize higher recycling rates for plastic bottles, glass bottles, and aluminum cans. The data around recycling rates in those states suggest that these mechanisms work pretty well, and technologies like reverse vending machines can help make them even better. It’s a model we need to see adopted in more places.

Happy end of political advertisements day! America has seen another election come and go, and in states like Georgia at least, that brings welcome relief to our televisions and text message inboxes. Unless, of course, any high-profile races have gone to a runoff. I wrote this paragraph five days ago, so if that happened, I guess I’m sorry for jinxing it?

Anyway, I figured I would use this occasion to share a heartwarming story about democracy working. It’s a story that dates back more than 50 years, and until I started researching for this post, I had never heard a thing about it. In fact, I’m going to guess that not a single one of my readers knows the story about a nature-loving Oregonian (which may be a redundant expression) by the name of Richard Chambers.


How The First Bottle Deposit Bill in America Came to Be

Richard was a native of Oregon, having grown up in the town of Salem. From what I can tell, he was an unassuming-but-stubborn man, which may have been rooted in some of his experiences in youth. He spent one year in college before dropping out and joining the Navy. That stint wasn’t much longer though, as he apparently punched an officer after getting chewed out for what he thought was a silly violation. He found his way to the Merchant Marines, and then back to Salem where he set out to build a life as a lumber equipment salesman that would support a spouse and three children. For recreation, he was always escaping into Oregon’s natural beauty for a hiking trip here or a kayaking trip there.
Except in the 1960s, America’s wilderness was becoming less pristine, and that was driving Richard crazy. Bottles and cans were turning up everywhere, and according to one source I found for this story, they accounted for about 40% of all litter. Richard would come back from his trips with bags full of bottles and cans, and as his daughter recounted, he would wave the bags at them in frustration and say, “Why do people have to do this?”
Then in 1968, while spending time at a cabin on the beach, Richard read a newspaper article about activists in British Columbia who were working to ban non-refundable bottles and cans. That article lit a fire in him, and he immediately called Paul Hanneman, his State Representative. They kicked around the idea of Representative Hanneman introducing a bill in the 1969 legislative session that would impose a five-cent-per-bottle fee that would be refundable upon return of the bottle. Representative Hanneman started work on a draft bill, while Richard started work on building grassroots support for his idea.
That took the form of circulating petitions amongst fellow citizens and conducting a letter-writing campaign to various legislators. Richard bought differently colored stationery and made each letter unique. He hand-addressed each one and was able to raise sufficient awareness for the idea that Representative Hanneman was able to introduce the new bill. During committee hearings on the bill, Richard brought various people along to testify in support of it. Unfortunately, though, beverage companies started their own campaign to kill the bill. The Governor at the time, Tom McCall, saw the writing on the wall and refused to support it. The bill failed to pass the Oregon House of Representatives that year.
Richard kept his letter-writing campaign going though, and Governor McCall kept his finger on the pulse of the idea. After two years of simmering quietly, the Governor threw his full support behind it, catching the beverage industry off-guard. This time, the bill earned the support that it needed and overcame the lobbyist headwinds. The bill passed, and Oregon became the first state in the country to put a bottle deposit bill on the books.

The Effectiveness of Bottle Deposit Bills

Even if you don’t live in a state with a bottle deposit bill, I bet you’re at least passingly familiar with them. On many glass bottles, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans, you might see stamped something like the following: “CA CRV, 5¢ REFUND CT, VT, ME, MA, IA, NY, HI (10¢ MI, OR).” That’s a reference to the ten states that utilize these laws, with seven offering five cent refunds, two offering ten cent refunds, and California offering both depending on the size of the bottle (the CRV stands for “California Refund Value”). While each state has its own wrinkle, they all function largely the same, and I’ll use Oregon’s law as an example.
First, when a distributor delivers drinks to a store, they charge a ten-cent surcharge per bottle. Then, the store passes along that charge to the customer by making each drink ten cents more expensive than they would have been (so at that point, stores are “made whole” on every drink they sell). The stores, along with other specialty locations, then are required to take back any empty bottle or can, giving the person who returns the bottle ten cents for each. Those stores then return the bottles and cans to the drink distributor for reuse or recycling, receiving the ten cents back (and once again being “made whole”). At the end of the day, any unclaimed ten cent deposits can be kept by the distributor.
Obviously, the intent of these bills is to provide a financial incentive for recycling bottles and cans. So how well do they work? I found a handy chart offering a snapshot of each state’s bottle deposit bills, and not surprisingly, Michigan and Oregon have the best results. They return 89% and 86% of deposits respectively, which can be imputed to an 89% and 86% recycling rate. It turns out that making bottle deposits more lucrative for the consumer increases the chances they will return the bottle! Many other states achieve rates around 65% with a few stragglers coming in around 45%.
But how do these numbers compare to national recycling rates?
Asked and answered from the EPA, with data from 2018:
  • Glass beer and soft drink bottles - 39.6%
  • Glass wine and liquor bottles - 39.8%
  • Aluminum beer and soft drink cans - 50.4%
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars - 29.1%
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles - 29.3%
Now, this is all slightly apples to oranges, since not everything in that EPA data would qualify for bottle deposits. Further, you have to be careful to parse correlation from causation, because it could be other things, or a confluence of factors, that cause higher recycling rates in certain places. But the data is at least clear in this respect - states with bottle deposit laws tend to do a better job with recycling bottles and cans compared to the national average.

Reverse Vending Machines: A High-Tech Way to Encourage More Recycling

As I’ve written about before, recycling is pretty broken in this country, especially when it comes to plastics. I also argued in that blog that we shouldn’t ask consumers to solve the problem. I do think, however, that we can ask consumers to help solve the problem. Bottle deposit bills do that, and so does a fun new technology.
Behold, I give you…the reverse vending machine! They are machines that accept and sort empty drinkware. Several companies make them, including TOMRA in Norway and Aco Recycling in Turkey. This quick video shows one of the Aco Recycling reverse vending machines in action. You can see how state-of-the-art these gadgets can be, automatically accepting empty bottles, verifying their material type, sorting them properly, crushing them down to save space, and providing the customer who returned the bottle their appropriate reward. This sort of technology is the perfect complement to a bottle deposit bill. It automates the process significantly, and making recycling fun, easy, and rewarding can dramatically increase the extent to which people will do it. Plus, machines like this in a public setting can raise significant awareness about the need to recycle rather than toss single-use packaging in the garbage.
Not surprisingly though, the major barrier to seeing more things like this is cost. Right now, in many places of the world (including my own state of Georgia), there is zero economic incentive to install and maintain things like reverse vending machines. That’s because the external costs of things like single-use plastics and cans still are not reflected in the prices we pay for them. In the roughly 250 years since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, we have seen that time and again, free markets fail to internalize the external costs of environmental and social harms. When that happens, we need legislation that can nudge the market back toward reflecting true costs.
Bottle deposit bills are one such type of legislation, and reverse vending machines are one type of technology that can help implement them. To get more of them though, we need a democracy that works, and we need more Richard Chambers.