How to Cap Plastic Bottle Waste

The one neat policy trick that could greatly reduce the environmental impact of beverage-guzzling ways.

In the United States alone, 1,500 plastic bottles of water are consumed every second. Every hour, Americans throw away, on average, about 2.5 million plastic bottles of all types. If we include all cans and bottles—soda, teas, energy drinks, beer—about 224 billion beverage containers are tossed out every year, adding up to literal mountains of trash.

Though recently plastic bags have been a hot topic and the focus of environmental campaigns in states like California, plastic bottles are also a major offender, contributing significantly to the almost 32 million tons of plastic that ends up in landfills every year. Only about 23 percent of plastic bottles are ever recycled, in part because they’re often consumed on the go. Because these bottles take from 450 to almost 1,000 years to biodegrade, each year, the pile grows larger. Every single piece of plastic ever produced still exists somewhere.

And the waste—as bafflingly enormous as it is—only accounts for part of the problem. Plastic bottles are also extremely energy intensive to produce. Fill up a plastic bottle about a quarter of the way—that’s about how much oil it takes just to produce the package. Just supplying Americans with plastic bottles consumes 15 to 17 million barrels of oil annually—enough for 100,000 cars. And that doesn’t even include the energy consumed by hauling them around in heavy trucks.

Though nobody’s seriously flirting with an outright ban, plastic bottles lend themselves to an elegant policy trick that can greatly reduce the environmental impact of all that guzzling. You might even have it where you live: It’s called a bottle bill.

Bottle bills require beverage retailers to collect a five-cent (or more) deposit on every recyclable bottle sold. The deposit is returned to the consumer when they return the bottle. Ten states, including California, Michigan and Massachusetts, currently have bottle bills in place.

Adding that tiny deposit—that little system of reward for those who consume responsibly—can have an enormous environmental impact. States with bottle bills recycle beverage containers at almost three times the rate of states that do not. In Michigan, which has the highest deposit rate in the nation (10 cents), the bottle bill has been credited with reducing total waste 6 to 8 percent a year.

“What’s true is that the bottle bill is the most effective program ever devised to prevent litter and increase recycling,” wrote Phil Sego of the Massachusetts Sierra Club recently in The Huffington Post.

Sego is part of a coalition in Massachusetts fighting to update bottle laws that predate new types of drink containers, mainly from non-carbonated juices, or soft drinks like Gatorade.

Updating the bottle law, he says, would save the state’s taxpayers $7 million annually in waste management costs and prevent an additional 1.25 billion bottles from ending up in landfills—that’s enough to fill Fenway Park every year.

The power of bottle bills is how it shifts the costs and responsibilities associated with beverage bottles from municipalities to producers and consumers. Just a small monetary deposit can dramatically change the equation.

But the most dramatic impact of these bills is the extent to which they curb littering. In total, about 2 billion beverage containers a year are discarded in open or public places, according to the Container Recycling Institute. These bottles end up strewn about our streets and public places, from highway embankments to parks. Some of those will even eventually make it to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Studies have shown these bills reduce bottle litter by as much as 84 percent and overall litter by close to two-thirds.

Unfortunately, environmentalists promoting bottle bills face an uphill battle against big beverage. Multinational firms like Coke and Pepsi have little interest in recycling or local quality of life and have billions to spend on opposing bottle bills. In Massachusetts, beverage companies have already spent $8 million just fighting the minor update in the state legislature. That’s compared to a mere $600,000 raised by the environmental coalition promoting the bill. Environmental advocates will also ask Ohio voters to approve a totally new bottle bill in November. They’ll face long odds, but if they succeed, the benefits for the state could be enormous.