I wanted to take the time this week to write about a topic in the world of sustainability that hits very close to home for me: the Massachusetts Bottle Bill. This November, Massachusetts residents will vote on Question 2 which is the decision on whether or not to expand the current bill which places a 5 cent deposit value on certain beverage containers. If passed, the updated bill is expected to drastically improve recycling rates and reduce litter.
On June 4, 1981 State Legislation passed the Massachusetts Beverage Container Recovery Law (commonly known as the Bottle Bill) into law as an incentive-based policy to encourage State residents to recycle. The Bill covers aluminium, metal, glass, and plastic containers which hold beer, malt liquor, carbonated soft drinks, and mineral water. Consumers pay a five cent deposit on top of the price of the beverage at the time of purchase, but can later redeem their used containers at any redemption center in the State. The Bill does not currently cover dairy products, wine, bottled water, juices, or sports drinks which together now represent over a third of beverage containers consumed in the State annually.
Since the Bill was implemented, thousands of jobs have been added to the recycling sector as a result, and over 35 billion containers have been redeemed in the state. However, over a billion recyclable beverage containers still end up in landfills or are littered in the State each year which is enough to completely fill Boston’s Fenway Park. Most of these are plastic bottles that do not have a deposit value attached to them. Additionally, a steady increase in the consumption of plastic containers which are currently exempt from the law has led to the push within the State to update the Bill. The proposed update would expand the Bill to include “new-age” drinks including bottled water, juices, and sports drinks. In response to the ill’s shortcomings, former Massachusetts State Senator Lois Pines, who was the lead sponsor of the movement to pass the original Bill, stated: “had anyone the slightest inkling that in a few years containers filled with water, iced tea, and juice would compose over 25% of the market, I would have absolutely drafted the law to place deposits on these containers as well”.
Based on a study of expanded Bottle Bills in the nearby States of Connecticut and Maine, an updated bottle bill in Massachusetts is likely to raise the recycling rate of plastic bottles from around 35% to over 80%. Studies on other U.S. States which have updated their deposit programs to include plastics have shown a drastic increase in recycling rates and an interesting phenomenon in which people who previously did not recycle at all often become diligent recyclers. This is especially apparent when water bottles are included in the deposit scheme and is an indication of how easily recycling can become an ordinary habit for almost anyone who is given an incentive to start doing it.
With the vote on Question 2 coming up next month, Massachusetts citizens have the potential to make a huge impact on recycling rates. In July, 2012 the Bill came extremely close to actually becoming law yet was shut down at the last minute, so this year it has the chance to go through again. To turn off voters, opponents of the bill have cited it as a tax and complain that the unredeemed deposits go directly to the State. However, since the deposit is redeemable, it isn’t really a tax. Furthermore, the updated bill would shift all unclaimed deposit values from going to the State’s general fund to going to a Clean Environment Fund.
When education on why recycling is important for the environment isn’t enough, sometimes all it takes is a little financial incentive to get people to make the right, sustainable choice. With the proposal to expand the Bottle Bill, the Government has recognized that the current system is insufficient and can be altered to match consumption patterns in order to encourage recycling more efficiently. By doing this, policy makers are attempting to fix a current market failure in which the environmental cost of trashing plastic containers exempt from the current law is externalized. The current absence of any economic incentive to recycle plastic bottles, which account for a significant portion of all containers consumed within the State, is a serious flaw that can easily be fixed under an expanded Bill. In the end it really just doesn’t make sense for one type of single-use plastic bottle to carry a deposit and another to be exempt since when you strip away the label they’re all made from the same recyclable material.
 Viscusi, W. K., J. Huber, et al. (2012). “Alternative policies to increase recycling of plastic water bottles in the United States.”Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 6(2): 190-211.
 Young, W., K. Hwang, et al. (2010). “Sustainable consumption: Green consumer behaviour when purchasing products.” Sustainable Development 18(1): 20-31
Image Credit: Coalition to Update the Bottle Bill, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group