When Oregon enacted the nation’s first bottle bill in 1971, it was intended to reduce litter on the state’s beaches, along roads, and in parks. It was a cleanup, not a recycling program.
Today, it’s working very well in large part because it pays people to recycle.
Collect the “empties” and earn a dime for each plastic bottle or aluminum can. It adds up and often is enough money to supplement purchases of food and gas.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported last year the state’s program hit another milestone—an 88.5% redemption rate. Compare that to the worldwide data that shows 1 million plastic bottles are purchased every minute and 90% of empty plastic bottles aren’t recycled and end up in landfills or in the ocean.
In Oregon, recyclers paid more than $205 million to people recycling and local nonprofits returning more than 2 billion containers to redemption centers in 2022.
Bottle bills, also known as container deposit return laws, are the practice of adding a small deposit on top of the price of a beverage. This repays the consumer when the empty can, or bottle, is returned to a retailer or redemption center for recycling.
A large part of the program’s recent success is that lawmakers in Salem doubled the payout to 10 cents per container in 2017.
Currently, 10 states throughout the U.S. have a bottle bill.
Iowa’s payment is 5 cents per bottle or can. Recently, state lawmakers bolstered the program by hiking cash going to recycling centers to 3 cents. Beverage distributors get 2 cents. Iowa grocers can now opt-out of being a collection center if there is a recycler within 15 miles.
Iowa’s bottle recycling is run by the private sector but regulated by the state. It is operated by for-profit beverage distributors, retailers, and recyclers. Oregon’s system is administered by the nonprofit Oregon Beverage & Recycling Cooperative.
Washington took a broader approach to litter control in 1971 and passed the Model Litter Control Act which levied a 0.015% tax on food, cigarettes, soft drinks, beer, wine, newspapers, magazines, and other items. It was for roadside litter cleanup.
Over the years in our state, there have been attempts to enact taxes on beverage containers. That last of which was in 1979 when voters rejected the initiative by a 57% vote. However, over time, Washington has developed recycling programs for items such as newspapers, motor oils, glass bottles, cardboard, metals, and batteries.
Now, Washington lawmakers are looking to a version of Oregon’s bottle tax as part of broader recycling legislation: Washington Recycling and Packaging Act.
If enacted, WRAP would establish a producer-responsibility program requiring consumer product manufacturers to fund statewide residential recycling services for packaging and paper items.
Organizations with ongoing recycling programs oppose the bill because it shifts costs, is complicated, and the focus is on the producer rather than incentives for people recycling.
Lawmakers need to look at what works in Oregon and Iowa. Paying for recycling is producing results. That might be a way to entice consumers to enact a beverage bottle tax.
It is amazing what happens when people are given incentives and can earn a little extra money. The bottom line is cash drives people to recycle.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.
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