Letter: It’s Time to Update the Bottle Bill

Bottled water, sports drinks and teas are not currently redeemable.

Every year across Massachusetts, more than 30,000 tons of non-carbonated beverage bottles are buried in landfills, burned in waste-to-energy plants, or tossed onto our streets, parks and beaches. That’s enough plastic bottles to fill Fenway Park – from the press box to the Green Monster – five times.

For nearly three decades, the Massachusetts Bottle Deposit Law has accomplished its intended purpose: providing the financial incentive for consumers to recycle beer and soda containers. Thanks to this law, 80 percent are recycled – more than twice the recycling rate for non-deposit containers. 

It’s time for Massachusetts to update our laws to include bottled water, sports drinks, teas and other non-carbonated beverages. In addition to increasing recycling and reducing litter, this would create jobs in our “green” business sector and save communities millions of dollars annually.

In Massachusetts, 40 percent of the beverages sold come in containers not subject to nickel deposits, and these same containers account for 83 percent of the bottles and cans we throw away. Most of these non-deposit container beverages are consumed away from home – which means they usually don’t end up in curbside recycling bins, but instead are disposed of in overflowing trash cans at beaches, parks, concerts and sporting events, or – worse – are tossed on the ground.

When the deposit law was implemented in 1983, carbonated beverages dominated the market and a redeemable nickel deposit was placed on each bottle and can of beer and soda sold to encourage people to recycle instead of littering. Times change: today, non-carbonated drinks are the fastest-growing segment of the market. These products now make up more than half of all non-alcoholic beverages sold. More often than not, they are either produced by the same bottlers or trucked by the same distributors, and stocked by the same stores that sell soda and beer. Whether you’re a bottler, consumer or small business owner, there are compelling reasons to back this change.

  • Communities statewide would save an estimated $7 million annually on trash collection and disposal costs.
  • The Massachusetts recycling industry employs 14,000 people. The change would provide more work for more people and help small local businesses, including the 140 redemption centers across the state.
  • There are four times as many non-carbonated beverage containers in litter than beverage containers with deposits. Deposits motivate consumers to recycle.
  • Massachusetts community and non-profit groups that raise funds by redeeming bottles and cans could see their proceeds increase by 40 percent.
  • More than 75 percent of residents and nearly 200 communities favor updating the deposit law to include non-carbonated beverage containers, according to a MassINC survey.

Some opponents claim this change would raise prices, limit consumer choice, or impose a burden on retailers. A Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection survey looked at beverage prices and availability at supermarkets, convenience stores and other retailers in several Northeast states with a range of laws on their books – from New Hampshire, which has no bottle bill, to Maine, which has a law that covers containers of both carbonated and non-carbonated beverages. Information gathered by the agency indicates that expansion of the bottle deposit law in Massachusetts would neither increase overall product costs nor limit consumer choice of beverages.

Analysis of the survey data also shows that expanding the law has no discernable effect on retail prices, beyond the redeemable 5-cent deposit. There is no evidence of significant cost increases as a result of bottle law updates in Maine and Connecticut. In those states, updating the law simply meant higher utilization of existing bottle-return machines. Our survey suggests reverse vending machines already in use at stores across Massachusetts have the capacity to accept more containers without placing a burden on retailers or the public.

At a time when we face many larger and more pressing environmental and economic challenges, we are spending too much time debating an idea that simply makes sense. Let’s make a choice that will result in more jobs, less litter and greener communities for generations to come.

-Kenneth L. Kimmell

Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Claire Sullivan August 09, 2011 at 04:34 PM
I work for several municipalities, and though well written, "J" is mistaken on some of his/her facts. - Despite our recycling programs, at least 2/3 of non-deposit bottles and cans do end up in the trash, or on the ground. people drink them on the go, and don't bother to bring them home. My munis spend a fortune in disposal cost and staff time to clean up the mess. -most stores are required by law to take back the containers that they sell. -70% of the containers that have a deposit on them are returned for the nickel. If more containers were included in the system, that percentage is likely to increase, as it will be more worthwhile for people to bring back all their empties, not just htose that had fizz in them. - It's unfortunate that scavengers make a mess looking for deposits, but why would it get any worse with an updated bill? they will take more of the stuff others were too ... busy?... to separate.
JMc August 09, 2011 at 04:56 PM
The picking could get worse, because there are more things to find: a greater chance you've let a deposit bottle get into the trash or the recycling bag, so ripping open these bags stand a higher chance of finding that nickle. Right now I have a trash bag, a recycle bag, and a few soda bottles I just leave on the street knowing the pickers will collect them. Even though I want to recycle them, if I put them in my recycle bag, it will get torn open and all my recycling will be dumped onto the street. Now, under an expanded plan, I have to leave even more bottles just sitting on the curb? Or do you expect me to buy yet another container to keep recyclables so the pickers can have easy access? 70% of the containers are returned you say. Why do you think you would have a greater return percentage because you increase the number of items. You might have increased volume, but why a greater percentage? And of the 70% returned, how many are returned by the owners vs pickers/collectors. I've never returned any. if I buy a beverage at my corner store, they won't take it back. I'm supposed to walk a mile our of my way to get my nickle back? The system is built to discourage me from returning my cans & bottles.
Charlie Madillow August 09, 2011 at 06:09 PM
I keep hearing these stats, but here's what I don't understand - If a deposit is such an efficient deterrent to littering, then why do municipalities in states without such a program have recycling rates that are often better than similar Massachusetts communities? The best way to improve recycling is to go single-stream. All communities in the state should have curb-side, single stream recycling. I'd like to see the figures on the revenue the state makes on unreturned deposits and what they project for a revenue increase if they expand the bottle bill. Because that's what this is really about - Finding a way to generate more revenue for the state but mask it with something (in this case, recycling) that people won't fight. At very least, before they expand this, the current return system needs to be improved because it is HORRIBLE. I hate leaving my returnables out on the curb because A.) I'm throwing money away. B.) The vagrants who walk around picking it up have no decency. I sometimes hear them clinking and clunking through recycle bins at 3 and 4 a.m. But to bring them back is sometimes nearly impossible, between broken machines and lines a return stations (those same vagrants love to pull in with their three shopping carts). Not to mention the often disgusting condition of the places.
Aaron Kirsch September 02, 2011 at 07:04 PM
I totally agree with expanding coverage of the bottle bill, but I do not think they should end there. Also force deposits on other items that can be recycled, there are plenty of wasteful packaging choices, make people pay for choosing them. Also, I think bottle deposits should be increased, because this will provide some REAL incentive to actually returning the bottles, make it 25 cents, theres no extra "COST" you will get your money back! http://thinkactprosper.blogspot.com/2011/08/go-green-idea-reduce-trash-increase.html
SM_bos September 04, 2011 at 12:34 PM
Has anyone seen the mountains of water bottles left after First Night or the Marathon? All that plastic was foreign oil and is now heading for the dump, have to assume that recycling more it is a good thing. I *hate* the trash pickers and realize they are a side-effect, but paying poor people .05 each (or returning them yourself) seems like a good way to direct them off the street/landfill.


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