A pile of brightly colored soda bottles, dishwasher detergent, and aluminum cans set to be recycled.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems, like the future of our planet, and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today’s question comes from a listener here in Rhode Island. They’ve been following local efforts to pass a bottle bill- that’s where you get money back when you return your bottles and cans. They’re wondering, do these programs really work? 

We had Juliana Merullo and Will Malloy from our Possibly team look into this question! 

Juliana Merullo: Hiya Megan! 

Will Malloy: Hey there! 

Megan Hall: So, tell me more about these “bottle bills” How do they work? 

Juliana Merullo: Bottle bills create what’s known asDeposit recycling programs”. Right now they exist in 10 states across the US. 

Will Malloy: Each state has a slightly different version, but it’s basically a law that establishes a deposit system for drink containers made of aluminum, plastic, or glass. 

Juliana Merullo: When you buy one of these drinks in a store, the price includes a small deposit charge, anywhere from 5 to 15 cents. Then when you bring empty containers back to a store or return center for recycling, you get that deposit back! 

Megan Hall: This sounds like a pretty good way to encourage people to recycle. Does it work? 

Juliana Merullo: Good question! To find out, we spoke with Caroline Cecot. She’s a law professor at George Mason University who’s published studies looking into how effective these bills really are. She says, 

Caroline Cecot: Studies show that bottle bills are an effective way to increase recycling of covered materials, and even sometimes uncovered materials.

Megan Hall: Uncovered materials?

Juliana Merullo: That means even products like paper that aren’t part of the deposit program get recycled more too!

Megan Hall: How big of a difference do these bills make?

Will Malloy:  Well, recycling rates for glass bottles are more than 20% higher in states that have bottle bills versus states that don’t.

Megan Hall: Ok, but how do we know it’s actually the bottle bills that make the difference? 

Juliana Merullo: We asked Caroline the same thing. 

Caroline Cecot: One study that I like looked at those people who moved from a state without a bottle bill into a state that actually has a bottle bill, and that study found that their recycling increased by 41%, which is a big effect if you think about it. And this suggests that the law is what makes a difference.

Will Malloy: Another example comes from Oregon and Connecticut, which both had bottle bills, but expanded them in 2009 to include plastic water bottles. 

Juliana Merullo: Researchers compared plastic bottle recycling rates before and after the law was changed, and found that there was a 15% increase in recycling once that small incentive was in place. 

Will Malloy: And it turns out there are other benefits to these programs beyond just recycling rates! 

Juliana Merullo: When you bring your containers to a redemption center, you feed them into a machine one by one. But they can get rejected if they’re dirty or not totally empty.

Will Malloy: This means that these recyclables are often cleaner than the same containers in curbside pickup, making them more likely to actually be recycled! 

Juliana Merullo: These bills have also been found to reduce litter! Anyone can turn in containers to get the deposit back, even if they didn’t buy it in the first place. When I was a kid growing up in Massachusetts, I used to pick up cans and bottles on the side of the road to turn in for pocket money! 

Megan Hall: So why don’t all states have these programs? 

Will Malloy: Some people argue that curbside recycling programs are much more convenient for people, and therefore make it more likely that people will actually recycle at all! 

Megan Hall: Is that true?

Will Malloy: Well, curbside recycling accepts more than just drink containers, and the two programs don’t have to be mutually exclusive! 

Juliana Merullo: But the beverage industry is the loudest critic of bottle bills. They have outspent supporters of these programs 30 to 1 when these laws are brought to state or federal lawmakers. 

Will Malloy: They argue that increasing the price of the bottles and cans with the deposit will reduce sales, and that it unfairly targets people who might not have the time or resources to bring the containers back for recycling. 

Juliana Merullo: But one study found that when you compared New England states with and without bottle bills, there was no difference in drink prices.  

Will Malloy: Caroline did say it’s important for policy-makers to consider the impacts of the deposit on lower income individuals.

Juliana Merullo: But this can be addressed with education and by increasing the number of return centers.

Megan Hall: Ok, so overall it seems like these bottle bills are actually a pretty effective way to boost recycling and reduce litter! 

Will Malloy: Definitely!

Megan Hall: That’s it for today. For more information, to find out more about the way your choices affect our planet, go to thepublicsradio.org/possibly

You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook or X at  “askpossibly”

Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio and Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society, and Brown Climate Solutions Initiative. 

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