Why Bottle Redemption Fees Belong In Your Local Landfill

Alright, I’m just going to come right out and say it: I hate California’s bottle and can redemption law. Frankly, I find it to be a complete waste of my money.

Now before you write in to tell me how ashamed I should be, and what a terrible steward of the earth I am, you should know that despite my aversion to my state’s bottle redemption law, I still dutifully recycle.

That’s right; I separate my trash every week just like a lot of you do. Yep, I’m a recycling fool.

See, my city trash collector requires all households to ensure that our cardboard, junk mail, plastic bags, foam cups and plates, and plastic milk cartons are always carefully separated from the regular trash. As such, each week I gently place those recyclables into the gray bin — with a great deal of pomp and circumstance I might add, just in case anybody is watching.

Meanwhile, the old rags, chicken bones, dog poo and other assorted non-recyclable non-hazardous trash ends up getting unceremoniously dumped into the other bin which, ironically, happens to be colored green. I know.

Have Bottle Redemption Laws Outlived Their Usefulness?

A big reason these bottle redemption laws were originally passed was 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 percent of American households recycle. In fact, curbside recycling now services fully half of the American population.

So have the bottle redemption laws outlived their usefulness? Many people, including yours truly, think they have.

Keep in mind that recycling has become so widespread that Delaware voted in 2009 to repeal its 25-year old bottle law after it was discovered that cheaper, more efficient, curbside collection in many communities there 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 some form of bottle bill on their books that require deposits on certain aluminum and glass beverage containers that can be returned later for a refund: 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 every beverage container that is 24 ounces or larger, and five cents on the smaller ones — and that redemption fee itself is, curiously, subject to taxation as well. Of course, that means every time the state of California increases the bottle and can redemption value, it also increases its sales tax revenues. California also keeps the unclaimed deposits, which makes one wonder if the primary purpose of the law is to keep the earth green, or the state treasury.

Nevertheless, California’s redemption fee adds about 64 cents to every 12-pack of soda pop or beer sold. That adds 16 percent to the price of a 12-pack of soda pop, assuming it sells for $4.

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 and let the city’s curbside collection service handle the recycling. I suspect the majority of people in my community do the exact same thing.

Of course, those households end up forfeiting the redemption fees on every case of bottled water and 12-pack of soda pop and beer they purchase.

In my case, each year our household ends up, well, “throwing away” more than $150 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 quite a few extra groceries every year.

Talk about being wasteful.

Photo Credit: Brad Montgomery

34 comments to Why Bottle Redemption Fees Belong In Your Local Landfill

  • Olivia

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • Julie

    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!

  • Brad

    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.

  • 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.

  • @Olivia: No doubt there are definitely money-making opportunities for those who want to take advantage. Did ya know some folks in states without redemption laws are making a killing by going to states with the laws and (illegally) turning in their aluminum cans there? http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41537735/ns/business-personal_finance/
    @101Centavos: They managed to repeal the law in Delaware. Never say never!
    @DoNotWait: Then consider this article a public service. ;-)
    @krantcents: I agree — way too much trouble and more expensive to administer than curbside pickup.
    @LittleHouse: FYI: The law in California says if you bring in 50 cans or less you can be paid the per-container refund rate, rather than by weight. Then again, at $2.50 max, that hardly seems worth the gas and time to run down to the redemption center.
    @Coach: That is an interesting system that seems guaranteed to fail. We have three different trucks come during our trash pick-up day: one for trash (green cans); one for vegetation/lawn waste (black can); and one for recyclables (green, er, gray cans).
    @Julie: LOL! Lucky you! When I was in college I could never afford steak. :-(
    @Brad: Well said.
    @Jennifer: Beer bottles and cans are the worst. If you don’t get rid of them within a few days they start to reek — unless you wash the bottles out first (but then, that wastes water and isn’t very green, right?).

  • Darla

    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.

  • 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. ;-)

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • @Darla: I’m not sure if redemption laws make things better anymore, especially with at least half the US population already being served with curbside pickup. The Delaware experience, where all three surrounding states (which didn’t have the law) had higher recycling rates seem to bare that out.
    @Bret: I agree, it is a pain. Curbside collection is so much more cost-effective, efficient and easier to implement.
    @Sandy: It’s the never-ending slow creep of government taxation. I understand that California is considering a bill to expand it beyond beverages to encompass every type of bottle sold in the grocery stores. Very scary, if true.
    @MoneyReasons: $15 is a good haul, if you ask me! Especially for a kid. :-)
    @Jenna: I’ll never give up my daily Coke at lunch time! I wonder if that makes me a Coke addict? ;-)

  • 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.

  • Wow, you made it on TIME. Nice!

  • 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.

    • I sympathize with you completely, that is pretty confusing. I believe Michigan gets to keep 80 percent of the unclaimed deposits, and the stores get to keep the other 20 percent, so maybe the red tape is there to discourage deposit redemption fees?

  • Chris

    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.

  • Chris

    @Len Penzo: It’s funny you say that Delaware recycles less than the surrounding states. I heard that bottle redemption laws have shown to decrease litter, and create jobs. Learn more here: http://www.massbottlebill.org/ubb/ten_reasons2.htm

    • 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 (who, just for the record, I believe is a Democrat to boot). :-)

      The link you provided shows that states that implement the law increases recycling. However, in my opinion that is misleading — if I took the time to research it, I am certain the recycling rate has increased over the past 30 or 40 years in the other 40 states *without* the law. (And in Delaware it wasn’t as great as surrounding states without the law.)

      I’m all for recycling — just do it via curbside pick-up. :-)

  • Chris

    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.

    • That’s a very fair point; the law definitely incentivize industrious people. Unfortunately, I’m lazy when it comes to recycling beverages I consume on the go. (Not to mention, I don’t like carrying the empties around in my car.)

  • 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!

  • Chris

    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.

  • Zachary

    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.

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