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10 states use bottle deposits to boost recycling rates. Could it work for Colorado?

States with bottle bills have some of the highest recycling rates in the country. But many were implemented before curbside recycling came to fruition.

Momentum Recycling in Broomfield buys dirty glass from several Colorado collectors in the Denver and Colorado Springs area. The company cleans the glass so it can used in consumer products, like bottles. (Provided by Chris Schneider for Momentum Recycling)
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Colorado has a bad recycling reputation.

The state generated nearly 2 million more tons of trash in 2018 compared to 2017. And out of all that trash, only approximately 17% was recycled or composted, way below the national average of 35%.

Colorado lawmakers spent recent months deliberating over ways to boost the state’s dismal recycling rate. One idea — a bottle deposit bill — was pulled at the last minute from discussion. 

It’s an idea that’s surfaced in Colorado at least twice before, in 2004 and 2010, but has never gained traction, despite impressive results in other states. The draft proposal suggested a 10-cent deposit for every beverage container purchased that would be refunded when the bottle or can was returned.

“The bottle redemption program, I still strongly believe, has a place in this solution,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, who spearheaded the idea. “I just think we should really carefully consider any unintended consequences before we move forward.”

A large block of aluminum cans at Alpine’s Altogether Recycling — the state’s largest recycling facility — on July 20, 2018, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The 10 states that have bottle bill legislation — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Vermont — have some of the highest recycling rates in the country. But no new “bottle bills” have passed since 2002. 

Most of the bills were implemented in the 1970s and ’80s, when curbside recycling was nearly nonexistent. If one were introduced now, some worry that a bottle redemption program would compete with existing recycling programs in Colorado, which depend on fluctuating, and frequently unstable, global markets. 

One other big question: Who would pay for it? 

Moreno said he’s still committed to the cause, despite pulling his bill from consideration during a Zero Waste and Recycling interim committee meeting. He said he favors a program run by distributors and retailers who use the revenue to offset the cost of the program — which is how Oregon’s bottle program is run.

More: Colorado’s recycling rate improves to 17.2%, but we’re producing more trash than ever

He said he doesn’t know when he might revive the bottle bill idea, or what it might look like. “We’re continuing to have conversations with stakeholders to see if we can reach a policy that works for everyone.” 

Oregon’s bottle bill: a model for Colorado?

When Oregon’s Republican governor signed a bottle bill in 1971, it was aimed at addressing a growing littering problem.

The law, one of the oldest and most successful in the country, is often looked at as a model system. The bottle deposit program, called the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, is owned and operated by the private beverage industry. Today, more than 85% of all containers purchased in Oregon are returned to be reused or recycled. Unredeemed bottle deposits fund the program’s operations.

The way it works is relatively simple: the retailer collects a dime deposit from customers for each beverage container purchased. The 10 cents then goes to the distributor, who passes it off to the OBRC to operate the program. 

“The law is kind of aspirational. It says to the industry, ‘You will give a return value on these containers,’ but it has remained pretty open on letting industry use innovation to create the model and set it up to be efficient,” said Joel Schoening, community relations manager for the cooperative.

But Schoening says the success of Oregon’s bottle bill partially stems from its timing. When it was passed, there was no curbside recycling available and it was fairly easy for distributors to work with retailers to recover their own containers. 

“When a distributor like Budweiser or Miller, or Coke or Pepsi, dropped off new full beverages at a retailer, they would pick up the empties,” Schoening said.

“But over time, as the beverage industry got more complex and especially after bottled water came into the deposit system, the distributors started to realize that it no longer made sense for them to run individual trucks to pick up their containers.”

Now, customers can return their bottles and cans at self-serve return machines at grocery and convenience stores, or at bottle-redemption centers spread out across the state. 

Schoening said initially there was pushback from private beverage industry members worried the deposit would be perceived as a tax, and that it would drive down sales.

One other concern — which has been echoed by opponents of the bills in other states, including Colorado — involved whether the deposits would force an additional costs onto retailers and distributors. And others worried that storing dirty bottles around food would attract rodents and other unwelcome critters.

“I can’t speak to what the politics are in Colorado, but I can tell you that historically the beverage industry has wanted to make sure that if there is deposit legislation, that it is run by private industry — that the costs are kept down, and that it’s an efficient system where the industry gets final say over the budget,” said Jules Bailey, chief stewardship officer the Oregon cooperative.  

“Which is why I think our program in Oregon has been so successful. Because we have those things.”

Boosting domestic recycling markets

Bailey says Oregon’s bottle bill helped protect the state’s recycling industry from being pulled down by unstable global markets, especially in the past two years. 

In January 2018, China closed the door to nearly all U.S. recycling imports to clean up its own environment. For more than a decade, the country had bought nearly one-third of U.S. recyclables. The halt sent U.S. recycling markets into disarray, as the market for international recyclables essentially dissipated overnight.

Oregon collects and processes all of its bottle containers domestically. “It’s a pretty closed loop,” Bailey said. 

More: Colorado trash companies invest millions to speed up recycling. Now they just need more people to recycle.

“The places that have had challenges with China’s recycling ban are places that were sending dirty, mixed material over there and hoping they’d sort it out for them. We don’t have to do that. We have clean, raw materials that are available for use.”

That system may be hard to implement for states that already have well-established recycling systems. Taking the most valuable components out of the single-stream recycling program — typically the glass bottles and aluminum cans — could have serious financial implications for trash and recycling companies.

“So if we tomorrow flip the switch and create a bottle redemption program, that most likely removes the majority of material from that stream,” Moreno said. “If you remove the most valuable commodity from that recycling stream, that’s obviously going to have unintended effects.” 

When then-State Rep. Angie Paccione proposed a bottle bill in 2004, her top priority wasn’t to increase recycling rates. It was to help fund higher education. “At the time, the state finance folks projected that the bill would pull $50 million into the state coffers,” said Paccione, who now is executive director of the state Higher Education Department.

The conversation around bottle bills boils down to who benefits from the money generated from recycling. And in order for a state-run bottle bill to pass in Colorado, the financial structures in place need to be reworked to allow additional revenue,” Paccione said. “And when I’m talking about financial structures, I’m talking about TABOR.”

Approved by Colorado voters in 1992, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights limits the amount of revenue the state can retain and spend. In November, voters rejected Proposition CC, which would have repealed the constitutional spending limits.

“So if $50 million in revenue was generated from the bottle deposit bill, they would have to turn around and send it right back to the citizens as a refund,” Paccione said.

Crews at Alpine’s Altogether Recycling go through their daily process of sorting through mountains of recyclable materials on July 20, 2018, in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Depending on the structure of the new program, lawmakers could exempt it from counting toward TABOR. But it’s still a big lift, given the volatility of the recycling market.

“If you think about just what it would take to set up the infrastructure for a bottle bill to work, and not knowing where that money would come from to set up that infrastructure, I’m sure that scares a lot of legislators,” said Brandy Moe, part of the nonprofit Recycle Colorado’s policy committee.

Supporting Colorado’s recycling market

Wolf Kray, a recycling expert with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, says there are a handful of reasons why Colorado has such low recycling rates.

First, Colorado is far from most markets for recycling, he said. And implementing recycling programs in rural Colorado is challenging because of transportation costs and lack of infrastructure.

Some believe a bottle redemption program would be more work for consumers. 

“We still have problems getting people to recycle. Do you really think that people are going to put their bottles into a bag and schlep them down to the grocery store in the back of their trunk or on their bike or whatever it is?” said Christopher Howes, a lobbyist for the Colorado Retail Council, which includes chain grocery, convenience and pharmacy outlets. 

Howes was a lobbyist for the American Beverage Association, which includes Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper and PepsiCo, when a bottle bill was being discussed in 2010. “And we would still lobby against it for the Retail Council,” Howes said, calling the measure “a step back in time.”

This year, a new law was pushed forward to help fund more recycling programs in the Front Range, where Kray says 80-85% of Colorado’s waste is generated. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will raise landfill tipping fees to fund a grant program for local governments and organizations in the Front Range to support curbside recycling.

Consumers can do their part by paying close attention to what is ending up in their bins, Kray said. “Contamination has become a huge problem — meaning that things that are not recyclable are ending up in the recycling stream.”

“And really, that was the root cause that led to the situation with China. There was too much contamination in the bales of recyclables going overseas. So if there is one thing we can do to make recycling more cost effective, and to improve our diversion rate, it’s to make sure that whatever we’re recycling is actually recyclable.”

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