One big recycling success: Maine's bottle bill

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While recycling in Maine is in the dumps with a tough market and a need for recycling education, there’s a bright spot: Maine’s 40-year-old bottle bill.

The bin collecting bottles and cans is in many Maine kitchens.

Mainers have been paying deposits and religiously returning cans and bottles for nickel or 15-cent paybacks since 1978. “It’s part of our culture,” said Carole Cifrino, recycling program supervisor for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The original goal of the bottle bill in 1976 was to reduce litter along roads, highways and sidewalks.

It’s done that and more, said Sarah Lakeman of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

“It’s saving so much waste from going into the landfill. Municipalities don’t have to pay for it” because consumers are good about recycling. I’m so grateful for the bottle bill right now.”

Estimates are that 90 percent of Maine beverage cans and bottles are recycled, Lakeman said.

In 2017 that meant 37,500 tons of glass, 4,900 tons of aluminum and 9,000 tons of plastic were kept out of landfills, incinerator plants or off the sides of roads, according to the DEP. 

That, despite the fact that the nickel deposit in 1978 is still only a nickel. In today’s dollars, that 1978 nickel is worth 19 cents, Cifrino said.

Maine is in the minority of states that recycle beverage cans and bottles, according to the Container Recycling Institute, a national nonprofit research organization.

Ten states have beverage container redemption laws: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont.

Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute in Los Angeles, said her organization shows that Maine’s beverage container recycling rate is 84 percent.

“That is an excellent rate,” Collins said. “Maine is the highest of the deposit laws that use a nickel deposit,” she said, adding what helps is Maine’s 15-cent deposit for wine and spirit bottles. Other states that have a dime deposit have lower recycling rates.

Collins called bottle redemption programs “the rock stars of recycling.” In addition to using less energy and resources to make new cans and bottles, using the old containers to make new ones reduces greenhouse gases and toxins and creates jobs.

Unlike other kinds of recycled materials, if a can or bottle is thrown on the side of the road, “someone will pick it up,” Collins said. And producers and consumers are responsible for the program, not taxpayers, Collins said.

While China has rejected taking many recycled materials from the United States, most beverage containers have always been recycled in the United States, which means they haven’t been negatively affected by market changes.

Collins added that beverage containers aren’t mixed with other containers, and they are among the cleanest of all recyclables, which means there isn’t a problem of contamination.

Despite the advantages, bottle bills haven’t been passed in most states because of strong beverage industry opposition, Collins said.

In Maine, the industry has tried repeatedly to chip away at Maine’s bottle bill, she said. “In other states, they’re trying to repeal it altogether.”

Worldwide, more countries are creating bottle redemption programs, including England and India, Collins said. “They’re popping up all over.”

Recycled cans and bottles contribute to Maine’s overall recycling rate, which is estimated at 37 percent, Cifrino said.

While that rate is below the state recycling goal of 50 percent, without the bottle bill the recycling rate would be even lower, she said. 

Maine’s bottle redemption law, which started 40 years ago, is among the most successful in the nation. By recycling cans and bottles, consumers keep thousands of tons of cans and bottles out of landfills and incinerators each year, which lowers solid waste expenses for towns and cities. In this file photo a bin full of returnables is ready to be sorted at Roopers Beverage & Redemption in Lewiston. (Sun Journal file photo)

Maine’s bottle redemption law, which started 40 years ago, is among the most successful in the nation. By recycling cans and bottles, consumers keep thousands of tons of cans and bottles out of landfills and incinerators each year, which lowers solid waste expenses for towns and cities. In this file photo from earlier this year, Nicholas Johnson processes beer cans at Roopers Beverage & Redemption in Lewiston. (Sun Journal file photo)

10 states with bottle bills

California

Connecticut

Hawaii

Iowa

Maine

Massachusetts

Michigan

New York

Oregon

Vermont

Source: Container Recycling Institute

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