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It’s Time for a National Deposit Law (Commentary)

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Container deposits are the third rail of recycling. You can love them or hate them, but few of us are indifferent. Whether you like them or not, it is hard to deny that they are an immensely effective way to collect bottles and cans for recycling.

Ten states currently require deposits on beverage containers. Most of them charge a nickel, but two require 10 cents. These ten states supply the bulk of our recycled aluminum cans, glass bottles and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles.

Deposit laws work for one simple reason: Consumers have a direct economic interest in recycling. Deposits are not hidden in the price of a product. They are out in the open for all to see. Consumers know they have paid a refundable deposit when they purchase a beverage, and they know they will get their money back when they return the container. No other recycling option offers immediate payback. You can’t get any better than that. 

Deposit containers have another advantage compared with curbside collection and other recycling options. They meet the two most important criteria for recycling end-markets: They provide a consistent quantity of raw materials at a consistently high quality. While curbside collection can offer relatively consistent quantity, it cannot offer the consistent high quality of aluminum, PET and glass deposit containers.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of deposit containers as a raw material. When fears of virus transmission by surface transmission were so prominent at the beginning of the pandemic, deposit redemption was suspended. The aluminum can, glass bottle and PET recycling industries that rely on those raw materials immediately protested. They needed them to make new containers. 

Moreover, deposit containers are the key for meeting the recycled content goals proclaimed by so many beverage companies. California recently enacted a recycled content law for plastic beverage containers that requires post-consumer recycled content of 15 percent in plastic beverage containers in 2022, 25 percent in 2025 and 50 percent in 2030. Given that California is one of the 10 states with a beverage container deposit law, the industry shouldn’t have too much trouble meeting that state’s goals. 

Yet the opposition of the beverage industry, in particular soft drink and bottled water companies, continues unabated. They have stridently opposed deposits for more than five decades. Most recently, the Washington Beverage Association conceded that container deposits “can improve the collection of more materials for recycling” but went on to warn that if the state were to combine deposits and extended producer responsibility (which the association supported under certain conditions), “special caution must be taken…to avoid inefficiencies that could complicate efforts to achieve a truly circular economy” (see Appendix H).

Unfortunately, those inefficiencies went unmentioned. Perhaps they want to use extended producer responsibility as a blunt cudgel to eliminate deposits. That would be a shame as deposits are the most efficient form of effective producer responsibility.

 Two groups have legitimate concerns about container deposits. Many retailers don’t have sufficient space to store used, empty bottles and cans. In addition, recycling companies and local governments bemoan the loss of curbside recycling revenue if those containers are managed through deposits. That latter concern has lost potency, however, because of the more than year-long decline in prices for recycled aluminum cans and PET bottles. Nonetheless, these problems need to be taken seriously. 

I believe those objections can be met. Deposit redemption can be done away from the retailer, as is allowed in several deposit states. Unredeemed deposits (also known as the “escheat”) can be returned to local governments and recycling companies to cover lost revenue. After all, even the best performing deposit systems don’t achieve 100-percent recycling. But they consistently outperform curbside collection. 

Deposits have other advantages. They are the easiest possible recycling option for people who live in apartments, an area where curbside programs are especially weak. They help avoid litter. They create jobs. 

To be most effective, Congress should enact a national beverage container deposit law. That will put a stop to the problems caused by people who try to take beverage containers from non-deposit states into deposit states (Seinfeld and the two Bottle Deposit episodes, anyone?).

The deposit should also be raised from a nickel to a dime because a nickel isn’t what it used to be.

I realize that some members of the beverage industry remain adamantly opposed to deposits on their products. After all, they’ve been saying ”no” for 50 years. Change is difficult. But without deposits, they will fail to meet their recycled content goals. Without deposits, their recycling rates will stagnate.

The time is now.

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