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Will 10 Cent Deposit Boost MN’s Recycling Rate?

January 29, 2014 By Nicole Simms, Fellow

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.

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  • Dale says:

    January 29, 2014 at 11:52 am

    But a beverage container deposit would result in me recycling LESS.  Due to limited space (small condo), I have a 10-gallon bucket for all of my recycling sitting in my entryway (no closet space to hide it) until I can take it out to the recycling cart in my garage (down the stairs, out the door and about 30 yards down the sidewalk).  If the bottle bill is enacted, the recycling bucket in the entryway will become exclusively items with the deposit and any other items will end up in the trash due to lack of space for separate recycling bucket.

  • Carrie says:

    January 29, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    I think we need to think bigger. After moving to the Twin Cities from Seattle, my husband and I went through “garbage shock”—we couldn’t believe how much we were throwing away. In Seattle our garbage fit in a 2x3x2 container every week, with room to spare. We recycled and composted nearly everything, because the city was set up to do it. By comparison, we throw away nearly everything here. Saint Paul isn’t equipped to recycle many items that are recyclable elsewhere, and there is no city compost pick-up. This bottle tax (let’s call a spade…) would create more hassle for consumers. Why not put the money and energy we might spend on this into improving recycling and composting services, and let that create the jobs?

    • Tom Brinkman says:

      February 3, 2014 at 8:36 am

      I absolutely agree with Carrie.  Here in Minnesota most residents are not even aware of what our recycle rate is or what it could be.  Except for a very, very, very rare article in a newspaper or MN2020 (which mostly only we progressives read) the recycling topic is not publicly pushed.  We have no vision of being a leader or a laggard, even though we recycle better than the national average.  We won’t ever excel unless community and state leadership, and the media, takes on the topic, “Green Leadership, Will We?”.

  • Ronald Leurquin says:

    February 3, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    I know Iowa and Michigan have the fee per container cncepts in place.
    How do they do it compared to how MN is proposing to do it?
    It has worked in those states for quite some time without much complaint.

    It used to be, maybe still is, that the retailers had to take back the bottles and cans.
    Whats wrong with that system?
    No one is forcing retailers to sell those products, they do so becuase of the demand.
    Why not keep them in the loop dealing with the waste created by the products they sell?
    Or maybe the bottling companies that need the containers to do what they do in the first place?
    Why should the county be the medium to clean up after the manufacturers and packagers of things?

    I know in my house there are some heavy duty soda drinkers, and our recycle cart is always full, mostly with plastic soda bottles.
    I can asure you they would be bringing those bottles back to where ever to get that 10 cents back.

    We recycle almost everything that can be (no one is perfect), adnd our trash output is quite low for a household my size.
    I persopnally need to work on my composting efforts, and that will reduce the trash some that way.

    • Dale says:

      February 3, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      One reason Iowa works is the program started in 1978. before curbside recycling was in play.  In Iowa, they have some regional return centers but retailer also serve as return centers for the consumers.  Per my brother, who lives in Iowa, the UPC code from the bottle/can must be scannable to receive the deposit refund (no crushing cans/bottles prior to return.  The retailer must sort the returns by distributor who refunds the deposit plus a penny per item for handling.  The distributor is ultimately responsible for putting the containers into the appropriate recycling process.  Based on the online information I found in a quick search, I am not sure who bankrolls the money from bottles and cans that are not returned, is it the distributor who is the first level to charge the deposit (to the retailer) or is the distributor required to pay unredeemed deposits to the state.

      In Minnesota, we did not start decades ago, we already have curbside recycling, including single sort recycling in many areas of the state.  Recycling beverage containers when at home could not get any easier yet in my condo complex, 25 to 30 percent of the homes choose not to recycle anything. 

      I am not concerned with the people who currently hold their aluminum cans until they can sell them at a recycle center instead of just recycling them curbside but my guess is that a mandatory deposit on beverage containers will not change the majority of people that currently toss cans and bottles in with the trash and will instead lead to weekly garbage cart scavenging.  And as the carts are scavenged, the trash bags will get torn open and contents dumped making potential health hazard and liter around the carts (you really expect the scavenger to be neat in their weekly raids?)

      What really needs to be addressed is recycling access when away from home.  Recycling facilities are not frequently available in public parks, malls, gas stations, etc where a lot of potential recycling ends up in the trash stream.

  • Wayne Anderson says:

    February 3, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    I am completely opposed to the deposit plan.  I currently recycle all my plastic containers every other week with our local recycling program.  I save my aluminum cans and sell them whenever a get enough to sell them.  If this goes into effect I would think that those of us who sell our aluminum cans would loose this money.

    • Dale says:

      February 3, 2014 at 4:27 pm

      More critical than you as an individual losing out on the ability to sell your aluminum cans would be the loss of the aluminum cans and beverage bottles from the curbside pickup program.  Currently haulers charge very little for the curbside pickup of recycling because the hauler makes their money by sorting and selling the recyclable materials.  Without the beverage containers in the curbside recycling the most profitable component of the program will be gone and the haulers will be no doubt charge significantly more for curbside recycling pickup.

  • Leah says:

    June 17, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Does anyone know where I can sell my empty bottles in Minnesota? I have a been recycling for awhile now and have a bunch of them but can’t find places that will give me money for them. Any ideas will be appreciated, thanks.