The Economy of Bottles and Cans

recycling cansPhoto via iStockphoto


Back in college, there was a woman who came through campus every weekend morning gathering all the beer cans and bottles from our porches, stuffing them into huge plastic bags, and dragging them around in a shopping cart that was often loud enough to wake up the throbbing-headed students who had finished drinking those beers just hours earlier. At the time, I hardly thought about the economy of cans. All that work for a five cent return? But this week, after the Massachusetts state Senate voted to approve a bill expanding the bottle redemption laws to include non-carbonated beverage containers, she’s been back on my mind. And that’s in part because I learned that so little has changed about the bottle bill in the past 30 years.

When it was first instituted in 1983, the redemption fee was only a penny, says Phil Sego, the political chairman of the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts chapter. Legislators quickly realized that such a small amount would barely cover the cost of processing the bottles, so it was upped to 2.25 cents per bottle or can. And that’s the rate where it’s stayed for over 20 years — despite obvious rises in rent, labor, and insurance fees that redemption centers have had to take on over that time. In that time, a rising sea of other beverage choices has made a slew of new water, sports, and energy drink containers (or, you know, combo sports/energy/water drinks) that have slipped through the redemption policies. MassPIRG estimates 1 billion of these containers get tossed in our landfills each year. It’s a big deal, particularly to redemption centers, who would earn a lot of nickles if they could recycle them all. But Sego says that more than half of the redemption centers in the state have closed in the past decade and many begun offering recyclers 4 cents per can instead of 5 in order to stay afloat. For those who use cans as an additional source of income, those pennies can make a difference.

But it also makes a difference to beverage makers, apparently. Sego says that opposition to the bill is strong in the state, as it’s a $5 billion industry, and those in charge are not excited about the 1.7 cents that they’ll have to take on to cover the redemption fees of these new containers, which explains why the bill has been stalled in the Senate for 14 years. But that’s ridiculous. The expanded bottle bill is a win-win-win for everyone involved. The beverage companies can talk up their environmental bona fides, and actually have something to point to. Those relying on cans for a source of income can have an additional source of income. And that means less junk in our landfills, which is better for everyone. So memo to the State House: pass the bill. Do it and then I’ll buy you a 30 pack.