Will 10 Cent Deposit Boost MN’s Recycling Rate?
Are you willing to temporarily part with $0.10 per beverage container to boost Minnesota's recycling rate? It might seem like an annoyance, but beverage container deposit systems are effective and could potentially create over 1,000 Minnesota jobs. Consider this: when it comes to beverage container recycling, Minnesota generally out recycles (PDF) the nation as a whole, at roughly 45% to the national average of 36%. Against deposit states, however, we significantly trail the weakest recycler.
In an attempt to close this gap, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) devised a draft beverage container recycling program in consultation with retailers, collectors, recyclers, local governments, and consumers. The program mandates a $0.10 consumer deposit at the point of sale, with a refund upon return to a redemption center.
Similar deposit-return systems (or "bottle bills") exist in 10 other U.S. states, all of which have high rates of return of uncontaminated material for recycling. But according to Reclay StewardEdge Inc., the waste management consulting company who prepared a recently released cost-benefit analysis for the MPCA, the proposed program differs from these in several ways:
- All beverage containers are covered;
- A ten cent refund value applies for all sizes and for all materials;
- Returns go to privately owned and operated redemption centers with no regulated requirement for retailers to take back containers;
- Specific redemption center convenience standards are established; and
- An industry operated Beverage Container Recycling Organization (BCRO) [has] ownership of unredeemed deposits.
These factors are all likely to enhance the program’s success, but a recent MPR poll shows little support for a bottle bill in Minnesota. Objections mainly center on the inconvenience of having to take used containers to a redemption site when many cities already have curbside pick-up programs in place. Moreover, single-stream collection, in which residents place all recyclables into one container, is the most common collection method in Minnesota. This further increases the ease with which individuals can recycle, because it doesn’t require any sorting. Unfortunately, it also increases contamination; expensive cleaning and sorting technologies must be used to make materials viable for recycling after they have been picked-up.
If a bottle bill is adopted, residents will still be able to place beverage containers in their recycling bins – they just won’t get their deposits back. The MPCA anticipates this scenario: the program’s cost-benefit analysis includes $469 million in deposits and only $395 million in returns in its calculations of the program’s revenues and expenses. That leaves the BCRO with $74 million left over to devote to operating costs and program promotion. This may seem like a money-grab to some, but dealing with waste isn’t free. Recycling costs money – and when it comes to single-sort recycling programs, it can cost even more because of contamination. Residents who opt to use their home recycling bins instead of visiting a redemption center could choose to see the deposit loss as a fair trade-off for the convenience.
The real problem is people who are opting to put those containers in the trash, rather than recycling them – achieving the state's goal of an 80 percent recycling rate depends on changing this behavior. From inconvenience to apathy to the psychology of waste, various explanations have been offered as to why many people simply don’t or won’t recycle. One might argue that the promise of a $0.10 return is not enough to induce the kind of paradigm shift that would motivate people who don’t currently recycle to actually go to the trouble of returning beverage containers to a redemption site. However, the amount itself may be irrelevant if it achieves the task of imbuing packaging with a sense of worth, thereby shifting perceptions of its value. People may start to see empty containers as useful material, rather than as useless and unwanted garbage. Single-sort recycling on its own likely isn’t going to bring about this shift.
But if the deposit-return system is going to fare any better in this regard, its success depends on two things: 1) that consumers see the $0.10 charge as relating to the packaging, rather than to the price of the product itself; and, 2) that it is simple enough for consumers to return their used beverage containers to redeem their deposits. While the first challenge can be addressed through educational campaigns and potentially a state-wide labeling scheme, the second requires that redemption facilities be plentiful and easily accessed.
The MPCA has specified that there will be a minimum of one redemption site per county up to 15,000 people, with another site added for each additional 15,000 people. This means the state’s largest counties, Hennepin and Ramsey, would have approximately 77 and 34 sites, respectively, but many counties would only be required to have one. The question of whether this is enough will likely only be answered if the program is put into action, but if we take a lesson from the 10 other states with bottle bills, where the recycling rate on beverage containers averages 82%, the program seems to be worth a try.
The MPCA plans to send a report with public comments to the Legislature in early February. Learn more about how you can support a bottle bill in Minnesota here.