Why Bottle Redemption Fees Belong In Your Local Landfill

Seattle’s recent controversial decision to fine residents who put too much food in their garbage bins got me thinking about a recycling law in California that I believe needs to be repealed: the bottle redemption law.

Frankly, I consider it to be a complete waste of my money.

Now before you write in to tell me how ashamed I should be — not to mention what a terrible steward of the earth I am — you should know that I still dutifully recycle.

That’s right; I faithfully separate my trash every week just like you do because my city trash collector provides me with a separate bin to ensure that cardboard, junk mail, foam cups, paper plates, plastic bags and milk cartons are separated from the regular trash. So each week I do my part and gently place those recyclables into the gray bin — usually with a great deal of pomp and circumstance, just in case anybody is watching.

As for any old rags, chicken bones, dog poo and other assorted non-recyclable non-hazardous trash, well … that ends up getting dumped into the other bin which, ironically, happens to be colored green. Go figure.

Have Bottle Redemption Laws Outlived Their Usefulness?

Of course, bottle redemption laws were originally passed to encourage recycling. Back in 1971, when Oregon passed the first container-deposit law in the United States, litter was a major problem and recycling was nowhere near as widespread — or accepted — as it is today.

However, recycling is now almost second nature for many Americans; a Harris poll found that more than 90% of American households recycle. In fact, curbside recycling now services fully 50% of the American population.

So have the bottle redemption laws outlived their usefulness? I think so.

Keep in mind that recycling is so widespread now that in 2009 Delaware voted to repeal its 25-year old bottle law after it was discovered that cheaper, more efficient, curbside collection rendered the existing legislation ineffective. Never mind that the recycling rates in the three states surrounding Delaware were found to be higher too — even though they have no bottle redemption laws.

Bottle Redemption Fees Add Up

Currently, ten states still have bottle laws on their books that require deposits on aluminum and glass beverage containers: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.

In California, for example, consumers pay a redemption fee of ten cents on most beverage containers that are 24 ounces or larger, and five cents on the smaller ones. Curiously, that redemption fee is subject to taxation as well — which means that every time the state of California increases the redemption value, it increases sales tax revenues too.

By the way, California also keeps any unclaimed deposits, which makes one wonder if the primary purpose of the law is to keep the earth green, or the state treasury.

California’s redemption fee adds about 64 cents to every 12-pack of soda pop. That increases the price of a 12-pack of soda pop by almost 13%, assuming it sells for $5.

Now for those who have the space and are willing to store their empty — and sometimes smelly — cans and bottles until they have enough saved up to make a trip to the redemption center worth while, that is probably no big deal. However, in my case, rather than let them pile up, I find it much more practical to simply dispose of our recyclable bottles and cans each week by throwing them in the green, er, gray trash bin for the city’s curbside collection service — and I suspect the majority of people in my community do the exact same thing. Of course, as a result, most of us end up forfeiting the redemption fees on every case of bottled water, beer and 12-packs of soda pop we purchase.

In my case, each year our household ends up, well, “throwing away” more than $200 in redemption fees that we never get back — even though we recycle every can and bottle we use via our city’s curbside collection service. You don’t have to be on a tight budget to realize that’ll buy a lot groceries every year.

Talk about being wasteful.

Photo Credit: Brad Montgomery

Comments

  1. 1

    Olivia says

    Sounds like the makings of a very profitable scout troup project. Or money making opportuity for a homeless person. Or side hustle for a shameless frugalite. Just collect the recylables from the neighbors and cash them in at redemption centers.

    Our state doesn’t have redemption laws, but squashed aluminum cans net 41 cents a pound at the local recycler. That’s enough to stash them in the garage, until we get a trunk full, for.

      • 3

        Marcia says

        Huh. I know someone who does that. Doesn’t make a killing, but he lives in a place where nobody recycles.

        So he drives around town, collects everyone’s cans and bottles, and recycles them all. He does the sorting too. A lot of the stuff he gets doesn’t have a deposit, so he takes that to the center, and some stuff he sells by the pound.

        Never really realized (until now) that it’s “stealing” from the state. I guess I never made the connection between our bottle deposits and OTHER people returning them.

  2. 4

    says

    Len, I agree but the laws are on the books and like most(all) laws not likely to go away. The only item that makes economic sense from an energy in/energy out standpoint is an aluminum can. Everything else is wasteful.

  3. 5

    says

    Honestly, never thought about it this way, but I admit I too recycle cans and bottles instead of returning them. Maybe I will start doing things differently. Not that I like accumulating them, but rather because I did pay the fees that are supposed to be paid back when you make the “green action”. Those laws now seem useless for me also.

  4. 6

    says

    I agree! So few of what we purchase has these fees, so I just toss it out in the recyclable trash! Maybe this is just an excuse, but it is too much trouble to accumulate the bottles and return them.

  5. 7

    says

    like the commenter @DoNotWait, I never really thought of it this way either. I thought I was doing something good when I do what I do. Thanks for this post. I might evaluate my actions now and do things a little differently.

  6. 8

    says

    We actually do collect and save our empty cans and bottles in large rubbermaid tubs. Then, when they’re full, we cash them in. I’m pretty sure we’re not getting the full redemption value since they weight them by the pound, but we do get some of our money back doing it this way.

  7. 9

    says

    We do our best to recycle around here as well and what gets me is how often the recycling can gets ignored! By ignored I mean that trash pick and recycling are on the same day in my neigborhood, but the trash guys get to my house first. I’d say a good 25% of the time the trash guys ignore the giant “RECYCLING” painted on the side of one of our cans and dump it in the trash. Very frustrating!

  8. 10

    Julie says

    The deposit fees can be a great boost to savvy college students. I went to school in MI and my roommates and I always hosted study groups at our aparment. We conveniently placed bins by the door for all the pop bottles people brought in and then cashed them in a couple of times a year. We always bought ourselves fixings for a steak dinner!

  9. 11

    Brad says

    I hate ‘em too. That unclaimed money may be going to good hearted causes like green jobs or Julie’s fixins for her steak dinner but why shouldn’t I be able to keep that money and decide where it should go, whether it’s to a charity, green jobs or even me.

  10. 12

    says

    Hi Len, after living in states with and without bottle bills, I agree with you. It’s a big smelly pain to cash in your bottles and cans. In Massachusetts, I usually did it at the grocery store, painstakingly putting each can in the machine and waiting for it to be crushed. Then the bottles went in a different machine, and you would get a handful of nickels. A bunch of them wouldn’t be in the computer so you would get nothing for them.

    As you point out, it’s the government that makes out the best with this deal. If you aren’t very poor, it’s not even worth your time.

  11. 13

    Darla says

    If you have any doubts as to the many benefits of having a redemption fee – watch the documentary Tapped. It opens your eyes to things you didn’t know you didn’t know. While many are respectful and do recycle, those who don’t impact the Earth. Take away any incentive to do so and it will only worsen the problem.

    “If you aren’t very poor”, look at it as your way of contributing to the reduction of massive waste ending up in our landfills and oceans. It’s a small price to pay for a clean world.

    • 14

      Marcia says

      Thank you for this recommendation. Will have to look that up.

      I am reading a book about a woman who walked around the world, starting in 2001. And her comments about piles of trash in 3rd world countries were pretty eye-opening.

  12. 15

    says

    We always redeem our cans and bottles and it is a pain. Back in the day, our kids would do it for spare cash. Now they are big and have jobs, so the recycle tends to fill up and become a mess in the garage.

    One thing I do like is that people who need the money can collect up cans and turn them in. It’s like a ready sorce of money for someone who is industrious. It would be nice to see the law repealed here in California, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Our state needs the money worse than the homeless who rummage for cans. ;-)

  13. 16

    says

    These redemption laws still exist because the government makes a decent haul on the added tax that you will never bother to get back. I try to not buy sodas for this reason but NY just instituted this tax on all bottled beverages not just soda. It’s total B.S. saying they are encouraging everyone to drink water but they are really just trying to make up for a budget shortfall.

  14. 17

    says

    My city use to sort the trash somehow automatically. So we just put it all in the trash can, and they just would automatically sort it (I have no idea how they do this, but it’s pretty amazing if you think about it…)

    My son has started to take out the aluminum cans so he can get paid for the them. It’s usually only $15 dollars per bag, but he’s happy.

    Sounds like your city’s law is a pain…

  15. 19

    says

    You could go without drinking soda and save yourself from fees. I agree with @Olivia – it’s a good way for homeless people to get money and save the planet.

  16. 20

    says

    I recycle religiously, and I also return my cans and bottles for refund. (Sometimes I just tell my son to drive to the store and exchange them and let him keep the cash.)

    I know quite a few people that do not recycle, even though it is done curbside. That I just do not get.

  17. 22

    says

    I live in Michigan, where there is a bottle law. One of the problems I have is each store will only take brands back that it sells.

    That’s nice for the store but what about the fact that I have anywhere from $3 to $5 worth of cans and bottles from multiple sources when the bin is full and I need to turn it in? Why should I have to remember that this particular brand was a specialty item I bought at this-and-such store?

    I do live close to the Ohio state line, but not so close that driving 15 miles away to buy non-deposit pop makes sense.

  18. 23

    Chris says

    I don’t mind letting the bottles accumulate and bringing them back to the store. I just bring them to the grocery store next time I need groceries. It doesn’t take too long.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      Well, regarding the lower recycle rate in DE compared to surrounding states without the law, I’m quoting results directly from a member of the Delaware legislature.

      The link you provided shows that states that implement the law increases recycling. However, that is misleading — the recycling rate has increased over the past 30 or 40 years in the other 40 states without the law.

  19. 26

    Chris says

    Curbside recycling is great, but I think the deposit programs supplement curbside programs. What about all those beverages consumed on the go and not in one’s home? The deposit gives people an incentive to keep it and redeem it later.

  20. 27

    says

    You didn’t even touch on the newest California Redemption Fee – Electronic Waste Recycling. If you buy anything with a screen (i.e. TV, Portable DVD Player, Laptop, Monitor, etc), they slap you with a fee from $6 to $12 depending on the size of the screen!

  21. 28

    Chris says

    I’d be curious to know how you would get that money back. Electronics are items that really should be recycled – too many resources go into producing them that it is a complete waste to throw them away. My town separates electronics at the landfill, so we have that covered. I feel like every town should.

  22. 29

    Zachary says

    I personally love that people don’t redeem them. I work with my father doing local sanitation. In 2-3 months I manage to separate about 1,896 cans. Keep in mind this is a VERY small operation, two packers.

  23. 30

    says

    While we rarely buy soda, I’m redeeming those suckers as long as I can, including the cans and bottles my neighbors toss in the wrong bin, to make up for the few times we do buy and pay extra tax on the whole shebang.
    I can’t decide: I’m irritated by the cost when I do buy but collecting cans and bottles for the recycling money was one of many ways I filled in the gaps when we were really struggling to make ends meet. The habit to make back some cash has stuck just as surely as recycling has. In fact, having seen how CA born and raised kids still don’t recycle, I wonder how rates would drop if the incentive was removed.

    And now I’m curious about the electronics fee, that better be redeemable if they’re touting it as such!

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