Modernizing Bottle Bills: Saving the Environment and the Economy

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by Elizabeth Balkan, Director of Reloop North America

The Northeast region is warming faster than global average temperatures. This means rising sea levels, rising temperatures, and danger not only to the environment but to longtime industries unique to the region such as its world-renown lobster trade.

The region could achieve major environmental and economic benefits if it dealt more effectively with an everyday product—the more than 400 beverage containers per person being wasted, burned, or littered each year. Curbside recycling has not been effective enough, but a proven, cost-effective intervention exists: the bottle bill. Yet all Northeast bottle bills need to be modernized for maximum impact. 

An optimized deposit return system and the circular economy—which allows bottles to remain bottles and cans to remain cans—also mean shorter, more reliable supply chains. Recent news of bottlenecks, shortages, and now rising gas prices underscore the urgency of effective material management and manufacturing that protects both consumer and business interests. 

We recently spearheaded first-of-its-kind research on what makes a successful deposit return system. The data show the dire need to advocate for immediate policy change and increased investment to fully modernize bottle bills in five states—Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. 

The study, Reimagining the Bottle Bill, uses new modeling and data to make a compelling case for immediate legislative action to fully modernize bottle bills in these five states. Benefits for the region would include: • Increase in the recycling rate of beverage containers from 69% to 92% • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 550,000 metric tons each year—the equivalent of taking 121,000 cars off Northeast roads annually • Increase by as much as $1.4 billion annually the region’s Gross Value Added (GVA) • Satisfy 34% of the material required nationally to meet corporate and regulatory recycled content manufacturing requirements• Create 2,751 jobs throughout the region

For the first time, players from across the beverage container supply chain and from industry, advocates, and governmentcame together to support and inform Reloop North America’sstudy. It highlights how modernized bottle bills—instituted in Europe to great success—result in higher recycling rates, recovery of valuable materials, and savings to taxpayers. New bottle bills are currently moving through legislatures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New York, albeit too slowly given lacking support from industry leaders. 

So how does it work? On the consumer side, modernized bottle bills incentivize container redemption by making it as easy to return beverage containers as going to the grocery store. An updated deposit return system includes more types of beveragesto reduce customer confusion, increases deposit value to 10¢, and establishes an accessible recycling system that is transparent, uniform, and accountable. 

On the operational side, modernized bottle bills efficiently collect high volumes of uncontaminated food-grade glass, PET and aluminum beverage containers. By deploying the latest technology, like bar code-reading reverse vending machines, the system enables real-time analytics on material and capital flow. Once the containers are sorted, they can be delivered directly to a material processing facility, where they can be turned into valuable raw materials that can then be used in the remanufacturing of new containers – sometimes even at the same location. The result is a shorter, more reliable supply chain, that benefits both the brands relying on the manufactured good and the businesses that make up this industry. 

Financed by the beverage industry, and overseen and regulated by state government, a modern system would save taxpayers and Northeast municipalities millions each year. At the same time, this system would greatly benefit businesses, by stimulating material demand for the secondary market (recyclable) material and reducing dependency on raw materials currently originating hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

It’s the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.  There’s no denying the positive impact of a well-run and regulated deposit return system. It’s time for all of us, especially legislators in these five Northeast states to put our collective energy into a solution that is proven, achievable, and enables us and future generations to live in healthy, sustainable, and economically-stable communities. 

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