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Reloop releases study on modernizing deposit return systems

The report shows the environmental and economic benefits of modernizing deposit systems in the Northeast United States.

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March 18, 2022

Reloop North America, New York, has released research showing how five states with bottle bills could improve environmental and economic conditions by modernizing their deposit return systems (DRS). The five states are Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. 

“We did this study because time is not on our side,” says Elizabeth Balkan, director of Reloop North America. “The environmental implications of waste-based manufacturing and overconsumption demand urgent action. In the Northeast, more than 400 beverage containers per person are buried, burned or littered annually. We need to take action now so that bottles remain bottles and cans remain cans.”  

The study, called “Reimagining the Bottle Bill," began in 2021 and lasted for a year. Reloop says it used new modeling and data to make a case for immediate legislative action to fully modernize bottle bills in these five states.  

According to the study, benefits for the region would include:  

  • an increase in recycling rate of beverage containers from 69 percent to 92 percent;
  • a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 550,000 metric tons annually;
  • an increase by as much as $1.4 billion annually the region’s gross value added;
  • up to $160 million in savings to cities and towns across the five states; and
  • about 2,751 jobs throughout the region.

The organization says it based the study on proprietary data set on the sale of beverage containers on the state level. The set includes figures on the current state of recycling rate for containers by type and by beverage. It also used official data from each state on the redemption rate to understand the current state of recycling. Reloop then identified 10 principles of a high-performing recycling system, what it defines as being critical elements designed for a positive return system, and used them to determine how the current system could be improved.

The principles that Reloop suggests each state apply to DRS include making it easy and equitable, increasing collection rates to 90 percent and instituting a 10-cent minimum deposit. Reloop suggests that a DRS should be inclusive, producer-funded and have government oversight.

When applied, the report showed that more than 9 billion additional containers, roughly 1.9 million tons of material, would be recycled annually. In terms of increased beverage container recycling, plastic is estimated to see the biggest increase, with an additional 5.9 billion units being recycled. Aluminum and glass follow with an additional 1.9 billion and 1.4 billion containers processed, respectively.

Reloop says that under high-performance DRS principles, about 463,000 tons of additional material will be recycled across the Northeast annually. Balkan says a high-performance DRS also would save money for each state. For example, New York would save between $71 million and $101 million annually if it updated its bottle deposit system.

“I think the most dramatic finding [in the report] is that modernizing the existing bottle bills would generate more than a third of the total material needed nationwide to satisfy the recycling content commitments made by producers and codified in states,” Balkan says.

Out of the five states surveyed, she says New York should be the primary focus of modernizing its bottle return system because its current system only covers 77 percent of containers and excludes glass containers like wine and liquor bottles.

“Cities and towns across New York state as, as with cities and towns across the U.S. are struggling to keep their recycling programs afloat,” Balkan says. “Glass is a huge problem. And if you could pull that glass out of the recycling of the curbside recycling system and run it through the state's bottle bill program, it would not only alleviate a huge operational burden for cities, but it's going to save them a ton of money.”

However, some negative impacts are associated with improving DRS. Balkan says that if states were to adopt a modernized bottle collection system, material recovery facilities (MRFs) would lose material throughput as well as money and value in the material it collects.

As part of the report, Reloop conducted a survey of 21 MRFs throughout the Northeast. The responses show that optical and other enhanced sorting equipment were the most common investment needs. According to an interview with industry experts, modernizing a plastic line would cost $1 million to $1.5 million per MRF, and modernizing a paper line would cost $500,000 to $1.5 million per MRF.

“The expansion of bottle bill will have a direct negative impact on material recovery facilities, and some other industry players that are currently receiving and managing that material,” Balkan says. “We have gone to great length to make sure our analysis shows the worst-case scenario for stakeholders to find ways to address those losses and make sure a transition to a modernized bottle bill is equitable, just and fair.”

For example, the report says if all states reach a 70 percent redemption rate in the first year, $551 million would be available to invest in DRS and recycling infrastructure for MRFs. If in the second year the redemption rate for bottles is 80 percent, an additional $270 million would be available.

Part of a three-year campaign, Reloop says it’s planning to increase the knowledge and understanding by different stakeholders, key stakeholders on the positive potential for modernizing the positive return systems. It also plans to support the five Northeast states as they modernize their deposit return system and use this work in the Northeast to inform and foster the introduction of optimized bottle bill systems at the state and federal levels.

“It’s time for all of us, especially legislators in these five Northeast states to put our collective energy into a solution that is proven, achievable and enables us and future generations to live in healthy, sustainable and just communities,” Balkan says. “We must act with urgency to modernize bottle bills throughout the Northeast region."