A nickel for your bottle works better than a pat on the back for good citizenry.

There’s nothing new about reusing and recycling. Archeological digs (see here and here)reveal evidence of people recycling stuff as far back as 400 BC; some scientific evidence suggestsrecycling goes back to the Neanderthalsand possibly beyond. Perhaps that is surprising on its face, but when you think about it, making tools and containers by hand is pretty tough stuff, so reusing from source material in hand makes more than a lot of sense.

And I can remember when I was a kid growing up in New York City in the ‘50s placing our empty milk and seltzer bottles on the front porch to be picked up and replaced by the milkman and seltzer man. Reusing was an intrinsic part of the equation — if you didn’t put out the used bottles, you didn’t get the new ones. Of course that was for glass bottles, which are easily reformed and refilled.

There was a time that virtually all our beverages came in a glass bottle. Today glass is no longer king; far more popular are aluminum cans and plastic bottles. (See table below.) And as glass bottles have given way to bottles made of these other materials, many beverage containers have gone from ones that might be used dozens of times to single-use containers that are typically used and then tossed.Perhaps tossed in a recycling bin, but as we will see later way too often in the trashcan headed for the landfill.

Coincident to our shift from glass containers to aluminum and plastic has been a dramatic increase in our penchant for reaching for a cool one. In 1970 the average American drank about 250 beverages [pdf] (or less than one a day), in 1980 that consumption rose to 319 [pdf] and by 2010 per capita consumption was at 784 beverages [pdf] — triple what it was four decades earlier. This two-beverage-a-day habit for every American translates into an annual consumption of 243 billion mostly single-use bottles and cans that need to be disposed of.*

2010 vs. 1950: Types of Beverage
ContainersSold in the United States

1950 Beer

1950 Soda


as percentages

Refillable glass 51 92 <0.5
One-way glass 3 1-2 14
Steel 18 - 0.02
Aluminum - - 41
PET plastic - - 33
HDPE plastic - - 4
Gable top cartons - - 9
Aseptic multi-material drink cartons - - 1.1
Foil pouches - - 1.3
Data do not total 100 percent because of rounding and not all categories are shown. In particular, left out in 1950 are nonpackaged sales and left out in 2010 is non-traditional packaging. Sources: 1950 data,2010 data.

What Are We Doing With All of These Containers?

Some answers to where these containers end up can be found in “Bottled Up,” a recent report [pdf] from the Container Recycling Institute. In 2010, Americans reused or recycled onlyabout 37 percent of the 243 billion beverage packages sold in the United States; the remaining 63 percent were landfilled, littered or incinerated. How does that compare to a decade ago? In 2000, we recycled about 33 percent. So a slight improvement, but not enough to keep pace with our consumption; even though we incrementally improved our recycling rate, we tossed out 16 billion more containers in 2010 than we did a decade earlier.

Another interesting factoid from the “Bottled Up” report: not all beverage containers are recycled equally — some are recycled more than others. Containersmost likely to be recycled are made of aluminum* while containersleast likely to be recycled are made of PET plastic, the type of beverage container growing in use most rapidly.

So what’s wrong with our recycling system, why are we not recycling more? Some insight can be gained by seeing how different states encourage people to recycle.

Some States Do a Better Job

According to the Container Recycling Institute’s report, in 2010, 11 states*** recycled at much higher rates than the national average — these 11 states’ average recycling rate was 70 percent. Why did these states recycle so much more? In economists’ jargon: they used market incentives. While most states try to get people to recycle as a civic duty (carrot) with the rather empty threat of violating a trash ordinance (stick), each of these 11 states used a single green carrot — they offered money for recycling through container deposit laws. Not only do these bottle bills increase recycling rates, they reportedly also lead to less highway litter. (See interactive map for which states have bottle bills.)

One statistic I found particularly interesting was that these 11 states, despite having 28 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for almost half (46 percent) of all recycled beverage containers. States without deposit laws recycled containers in 2010 at an overall rate of 30 percent.

The data for individual containers is striking too. For example, the Container Recycling Institute estimates that in 2010 the average recycling rate for aluminum cans in these 11 states was 84 percent versus 39 percent in the non-deposit states.For PET it was 47.9 percent versus 19.9 percent.

Why Are Some States Better Recyclers?

Of course all of this begs a simple question. Why just these states? The first bottle bill was passed in Oregon in 1971. Since then only 10 other states have hopped onto the bandwagon, and those 11 states are the ones that recycled the most in 2010. (Delaware has since repealed its bottle bill so now just 10 states have bottle bills.)

Why haven’t more states enacted bottle bills? Could it be that another market-based force in the form of corporate opposition is preventing passage of more bottle bills? For example, Coca Cola claims that Vermont’s Beverage Container Law is “increasing the cost of recycling programs that provide waste material to local businesses.” A recent article in the Houston Chronicle suggests($ub req’ed) that corporate opposition is preventing passage of a bottle bill in Texas.Ditto Maryland.And the Sierra Club reports that the bottling industry is pouring large sums of money into campaigns to nix or repeal bottle bills

If you are concerned about rising mountains of trash, you have some choices: 1. Do without beverages sold in a container altogether (difficult, to say the least); 2. Recycle all your recyclable beverage containers (easy, but you got to stick with it); 3. Buy only beverages bottled by companies that aggressively pursue recycling including by supporting bottle bills (requires doing research but sends a powerful message).


End Notes

*For more info on trends in America’s eating habits check out this report [pdf] from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

** This comparison excludes aseptic boxes, gable-top cartons and foil pouches. Excludes wine coolers, champagne, sparkling wine, frozen fruit concentrates and milk.

*** The 11 states with container deposit laws in 2010 were California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon,New York,and Vermont. Delaware’s program, which began in 1982but was droppedin December 2010(see also here),only covered 19 percent of drinks sold in the state. (For more on bottle bills, see this short historyand thisstate map.)