It’s Fall of 2021: we’re at the tail end of the COP26 summit, an infrastructure bill chock-full of recycling funding is approaching the President’s desk, and we’ve reached a Renaissance of metal straws and bamboo toothbrushes. Perhaps we have reason to be cautiously optimistic about the state of waste reduction in America?
For all of our talk about reducing waste, America’s recycling rates are shockingly low.
Since 2010, recycling and composting rates have been stagnating or dropping, reaching a dismal 32% of all municipal solid waste generated in 2018.
In America, only 46% of aluminum cans are recycled. Germany manages to recycle 99%, and our neighbor, Mexico, 97%. When it comes to plastic bottles, the United States fares even worse, with not quite 29% of plastic bottles being recycled, compared to 80% in India and 97% in Norway. So what is it? Why is it so difficult for a country as technologically advanced as the U.S. to make sure our cans and bottles end up in the recycler and not the trash?
The secret is a container deposit program -- or lack thereof. It’s why Maine and Oregon both have 85% recycling rates for aluminum cans, while Virginia hovers around 23%.
Here’s how it works: in the states with the little letters on soda cans, you pay a small deposit at the store when you purchase certain containers, generally beverage cans and bottles. When you’ve finished them, you take them to a “reverse vending machine” at a grocery store, or a recycling center, to get your entire deposit back, often something like five or ten cents per can.
It’s an easy process, but it’s only law in ten states. The differences in recycling rates are clear:
Aluminum cans, for example, see an 84% recycling rate in states with bottle bills. That figure drops to just 39% in states without those systems.
Glass isn’t much better -- as of 2010, 65% of glass bottles were recycled in container deposit states, compared to just 25% in non-deposit states.
Today, there’s momentum building for a nationwide bottle bill, which would implement container deposit systems across all states. Everyone in the US could return their empty beverage containers and receive their deposit back, instead of hoping the containers are effectively recycled through their curbside collection.
Deposit systems generally yield better quality recyclables than others, like curbside recycling, because there are fewer chances for contamination and breakage. What’s more, is that they’ve been proven to reduce litter. Here in Virginia, plastic, glass, and aluminum beverage containers were much more commonly littered (by a factor of 2.5) than in states with bottle bills.
And containers like aluminum cans are extremely valuable and recyclable. On average, aluminum cans are about 73% recycled content, and can be recycled in a “closed-loop” fashion that allows old cans to become new cans, without being “down-cycled.” Minus some losses from melting and alloying, old cans can be fully transformed into new cans, allowing us to decrease our reliance on primary aluminum and the environmental and human rights abuses of its major ingredient, bauxite.
This means stronger self-reliance for the US, which recently struggled with a pandemic-exacerbated aluminum can shortage in 2020. This so-called “Candemic” saw 2 billion empty cans imported into the US as brewers struggled to find enough cans and lids for their products.
Even if you don’t care about litter, or packing landfills, or human rights abuses from mining bauxite, there’s a strong economic case for implementing a law that increases the amount of high-quality recyclables so we can decrease our reliance on imports.
Now, better recycling isn’t an excuse for overconsumption. A nationwide bottle bill won’t fix the problems that arise from our overreliance on disposable containers or our unwillingness to repurpose and reuse. But as long as the US continues to produce single-use beverage containers, we must take whatever steps we can to ensure these containers are diverted away from landfills and streams and returned to the circular economy.
And maybe, just maybe, when you pay the $3 deposit on your 30-pack, you’ll consider getting a keg instead.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.