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put too much food in their garbage bins got me thinking about a recycling law in California that I believe needs to be repealed: the bottle redemption law.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
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 Penzo says
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/
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.
101 Centavos 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.
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.
Mark Fuller 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.
Little House 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.
Car Negotiation Coach 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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Bret @ Hope to Prosper 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. 😉
Sandy @ yesiamcheap 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.
Money Reasons 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…
It’s done by humans on a conveyor belt. Nasty terrible job.
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.
Everyday Tips 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.
Wow, you made it on TIME. Nice!
Monroe on a Budget 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.
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.
@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
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.
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.
Robert @ The College Investor 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!
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.
Jennifer Barry 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.
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.
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!
Deposit bottles kept me in cash when I was a kid. 2 cents for regular pop and beer bottles a 5 cents for quart bottles.
Collecting bottles,shoveling snow,raking leaves and cutting grass put a whole bunch of dough in my pockets.
The city where my rental properties are still has regular rubbish collection,no green or blue cans,no limits. I’ve had evictions so large that the whole tree lawn would be piled high. That created a different type of recycling though. People would flock to the pile and scavenge whatever they could. Within a day or two the pile would be reduced by 60%.
Just remembered another way I made dough as a teen. Folks would tie up stacks of newspapers when they threw them out. I’d drive around and pick them up till my beater was full. I can’t remember how much we got per hundred pounds but it was enough to make the effort worthwhile. But sadly today there are fewer and fewer newspapers and those that are left are super thin. I really enjoyed reading the paper in the morning,sitting outside with a cup of coffee. Newspapers are so thin that it takes a weeks worth just to have enough to use in my canary cages.
Even the Wall Street Journal has slimmed down drastically over the last few years.
For sure. We never get our redemption fees back. In fact, I’ve lived here for 17 years, and about 15 years ago most of the redemption centers closed down, and any of the portable can ones at the grocery stores were removed.
Now there is only one place left to redeem. What does this mean?
Well, the city gets to keep the money from redeeming our recycling. They love it. I think it’s actually against the law to steal cans from recycling bins.
So we still have lots of people on their bikes who go around to the beaches and parks and pull out cans and bottles from the bins (whatever they can find) and they take it to the center. But you can get in trouble if you are caught.
michelle f. says
our small community does not have separate bins for recycling so we have always turned in our bottles and cans for redemption, but as ‘little house’ stated i know we are not getting our full crv back. i made a complaint to the recycler and he said if we want to keep count of our bottles they would give us the 5 cents back on them, but we know that is almost impossible to do as we only take them in every 4-6 mos. anyway, the state of california is definitely making money on it.
I live in Michigan, and we have a 10 cent deposit. I always return mine and get my money back. I keep a separate plastic tote that we put our returnables in, and I bring them to the store with me once every 1-2 weeks. I’m not giving that money away!
Kate @ Money Propeller says
Actually, we collect our can bottles and wine bottles and we put it in the box.Every 2 weeks or 1 month, we give it to the man who collect our bottles, I think he is going to sell the bottles in the junk shop.
Our town has this right. A local company developed the separation technology and we contract with them. Residents do not need to separate recyclables, we are provided with a free supply of blue bags, the company picks up the recyclables (no cost to the city) and if after all of the company’s costs there is a profit there is a profit sharing program in place with the city. No social engineering here, just free enterprise running rampant.
Having kids at home, it makes me more responsible when it comes to thrash. They see the practice at home so I’d better do it the right way so that they learn from me and apply what they have learned at school. Every thrash is classified and “coded” like what my son always says.
I agree with you. The law in California should be repealed…but we all know that’s going to happen. I also think you’re right in that the state makes too much money off the redemption deposits to ever motivate the lawmakers to change the law. Thanks. Great post!
Kayla @ Red Debted Stepchild says
I wish my community had curb side recycling. When I was in college (in a larger community) trash and curb side recycling wasn’t a city service, it was done by private companies, which was kind of nice because you could shop around for your service and pay extra if you wanted to participate in the recycling program. It was worth it! But here trash pickup is a city service and the city “doesn’t have the funds” to do curbside recycling. 🙁 I think a lot more people here would recycle if it were made easier via curbside recycling.