Container deposit laws

My past keeps recycling, and everything old is new again.  Last year I was asked to write papers about NIMBY issues affecting nuclear waste recycling and high speed rail development, something I last worked on three decades ago.  Now the Massachusetts “bottle bill” is in the news again, with a proposal to extend it to water bottles.  This 1981 legislation, originally conceived as a litter reduction measure (for which it works very well), requires deposits for bottles in which various drinks are sold (usually at least beer and soft drinks) redeemable from a merchant selling the same product (the right way) or at a recycling center (the wrong way, as California implemented it).  The political history of this policy is something of a mystery.  Back in the day, it was very controversial (I know because I wrote a supportive policy analysis for Massachusetts government when I worked there in the Environmental Affairs office;  in the end it was passed over the governor’s veto and I count as some sort of coup that I kept my job nevertheless) and gave me a bunch of memorable encounters with lobbyists and the like.

It was also complicated. My colleague Bob Leone warned me when I got embroiled with it that the bottle bill was much more complicated in fact, given the structure and technology of the beverage industry, than anyone on either side of the debate realized, and he was right.  It continues to puzzle me that ten states (CA,VT,NY,CT,MA,IA,MI,OR,ME,HI) have bottle bills (laws).  After this much experience, I would think it would be clear that it’s either a bad idea  or a good idea, but only one has repealed theirs (DE), and no new bottle bills have been enacted since the initial flurry. Also, I understand “VT but not NH”, but not “OR and CA but not WA”, nor “MI and IA but not WI or MN”.  Strange.

The MA proposal to cover water bottles is a fine idea, partly because water bottles are all over the place and just as litterous as beer cans, partly because bottled water, especially in places like Massachusetts with excellent tap water, is a thumb in the eye of poor Gaia in many ways.  Hauling it around, and the bottles themselves, are profoundly ungreen. We’ve finally managed to mostly drive it out of lunches and meetings at UC Berkeley and many other institutions, and right-thinking people are getting the idea, but something a lot like a tax on this wretched product is a policy winner and I wish the Bay State forces of light well in their enterprise.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

33 thoughts on “Container deposit laws”

  1. Question for you Mike: Why is the problem for CA policy recycling centers being the place of deposit versus vendors in other states? I have read vendors complain bitterly about maintaining huge deposit centers, especially grocery stores, while smaller vendors more-or-less free ride on the larger vendors deposit systems.

    My thinking always was that CA did not give enough in terms of a refund than other states. Also, shouldn’t the refund be increased from 20-30 years ago to today, due to inflation?

  2. Do you mean ‘what is the problem’ or ‘why does Ca do it that way?’ The CA bottle bill is a camel designed by a committee. A committee of poultry experts. The deposit is too small, and large vendors have all sorts of efficiency advantages in managing returns compared to the corner store (like an automated can crusher/logger). Being able to bring everything back to the Safeway also saves a lot of consumer’s time, which is a non-trivial element of the program’s cost and city recycling leads to “can pirates” stealing everything early in the morning on trash day. It’s also not a bad idea to make the costs of packaging visible to consumers.
    Yes, the deposit should probably increase now and then for inflation.
    All businesses complain bitterly about all sorts of things they’d prefer others to do for them, like collecting sales tax and paying minimum wage. Deal with it. I myself complain bitterly about having to stop at red lights when fire engines don’t.

    1. I can see a vendor having to pay a sales tax, or paying a minimum wage. Having Safeway be the source of bottle returns makes less sense, although they probably can simply pass-off the costs to consumers, though it becomes in essence a regressive tax of sorts. Your examples are spurious.

      In the example of CA, I think having returns go to a recycling center would work just fine, as long as the refund was high enough…

      1. Either returning bottles is net beneficial, managed for least overall cost, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, the bottles should go in the trash system, and litter laws and the road cleanup people and park staff – and the fish – should deal with the litter. If it is, I think (and 9/10 bottle bill states agree) making consumers make a special trip to a recycling center rather than just taking empties to a store they’re going to anyway is the more costly option, and everyone will be better off if they pay whatever price increase it entails and save those special trips. There is no way to assure that a program like this will be optimal for everyone; there are surely CA consumers with a recycling station right next to their workplaces, and they would pay a little more for Cokes at the store (with store returns) with no benefit for them. This imprecision is the irreducible cost of a complicated world: for a lot of things we have to impose some costs and expect overall efficiencies from many programs to average out.
        My other point was that just because someone complains bitterly doesn’t mean he’s right from an overall public interest perspective. The car manufacturers all complained bitterly about having to control smog, and it did in fact increase their prices and presumably reduced sales. A corollary is that just because someone complains bitterly about an imposed cost doesn’t mean he’s correctly predicting that cost: those car makers all agreed that smog controls would make their cars double in price and be undrivable and dangerous. They may have believed it.

        1. Here’s how it works in San Francisco.
          We put it into recycling bins at home, and dutifully roll them to the curb for pickup once a week.
          As night falls, various folks come by and pick off the lightest of the items from the bins, and redeems them for cash.
          What is left helps to offset some of the cost of garbage pickup.

          In net, it’s a 50/50 split corporate welfare & make-work welfare.

          1. It’s been 20+ years, but back when I was regularly judging HS debate, and the national topic involved social services for the homeless, one popular affirmative was going nation-wide with a bottle law as a means to improve the condition of the homeless. Seems, and seemed, heartless, and Dickensian, but there was enough there to justify a ballot unless the neg was sharp.

  3. An aside to note that the site you link to,, does not appear to have a comprehensive collection of past laws.

    I have very clear memories of living in Georgia in the mid 70’s and seeing supermarkets built with infrastructure to support customers returning bottles for the deposit. A few years later that program was discontinued. I assume there was a state law that expired or was overturned, but there is no mention of it on

    1. I bet it was a local ordinance, or more likely persistence of a refillable bottle regime, the way milk, soft drinks, and beer used to be packaged. Our grandparents used to return all sorts of bottles as a matter of course, and the nice wood crates too.

      1. Weren’t our grandparents re-using the bottles? Like with the milkman? Now *that* I could see remembering to do.

        Where I live we have a truck that comes and gets the recyclables. It has been forever since I took something back to a store. (Well, also I don’t drink soda or water out of bottles, except for a) one I reuse for hiking, and b) earthquake water, which I drank and haven’t replaced. Anyhoo.)

        Whereas, my used batteries and old CFLs and candlelighter thingies sit in the kitchen, in old cottage cheese containers, since in LA, you have to take them to these hazardous waste centers that are at least a 20 minute drive away and are only open from 9 to 3 on weekends. You know, when everyone is focused a lot on running annoying errands instead of spending time relaxing. It is a pretty bad system, if it can be called one.

        I think there was an electronics store that used to take old batteries, but I have no idea which one or if they’re still in business. Now, if I could take all this cr*p to the Home Depot, which is 5 minutes away, that might make sense. So, maybe you’re right, Mike!

        1. I reuse Everclear bottles for the limoncello the contents turn into! The old refillable bottles didn’t have durable reusable closures, but people certainly had them around in the garage with leftover fluids, and in the fridge with lemonade.
          The market does respond to regulation, not always quickly or well. My local Ace hardware store takes back batteries and fluorescent lamps (try yours!). Auto parts stores take back used engine oil. You can buy latex paint hardener that allows you to put half a can of paint in the trash. Right now Alameda Co. drugstores are complaining bitterly about a proposed law that they take back unused medicines so they don’t go in the trash (and get picked out), found by kids in the medicine chest, or dumped in the toilet polluting waterways with endocrine disrupters and whatnot.

          1. Ooh, great tip about Ace hardware — I’ll try it!!!

            You vastly overestimate my mechanical know-how — I don’t know how to change oil. Luckily I have a great mechanic. Anyone in LA who needs one, just ask. (They’re in the Fairfax district.)

        2. The L.A. Public Library has a bin at each branch for old batteries, etc.

          No need to go to any special center.

    2. = = = I have very clear memories of living in Georgia in the mid 70′s = = =

      Speaking as a one-time bottle boy and 17th assistant grocery department clerk, in the mid-1970s the vast majority of soda was still sold in returnable glass bottles which carried deposits.


  4. Michael, Maybe I’m missing something, but at least here in Altadena/Pasadena and Santa Rosa/Petaluma, the recycling centers are in the parking lots of some the stores (Ralph’s and Vons near me.) And so I don’t have to remember which bottles came from BevMo, which from Safeway, which from Gelson’s: I just return them. This seems easier for me.

    1. Bottle deposits are a great idea–but the deposits in the US are way too low.

      I recall living in Switzerland thirty five years ago or so and deposit on my favored Appfel Saft returnable, refillable liter bottle was fifty Swiss cents or around 40 cents US. You never saw any bottle litter.

      Plus, the present system builds up huge unclaimed deposit funds (pushing a billion bucks in California over the years) which the Legislature has either “borrowed” for other uses or returned to the whining beverage industry to compensate it for its unjustified compliance costs. IIRC a few years ago the Legislature passed out around thirty million in uncollected deposits to various beverage companies just ’cause the companies asked nicely–and, perhaps diverted some the funds to appropriate campaign funds.

    2. I’m also in Pasadena, and recycling is pretty easy – but it’s not trivial. My apartment complex doesn’t recycle, because there are penalties for putting nonrecyclables in the recycle bins but no penalties for not having recycle bins. My thoroughly lovely, well-meaning apartment manager knows from experience that if we had recycle bins he’d have to pick out his tenants’ trash every week; with a couple-dozen units, there’d always be someone flouting the rules, or just not caring, and he’d never know who it was. And so I have to take my recyclables to the recycling center every week or two; not a major inconvenience, but an unfortunate combination of incentives.

      1. Returning has never been trivial, in my experience: not when we had to return to the retailer, nor now. My wife and I finally got fed up, and just have a bin for deposit bottles and cans, and put it separately on the street with our cans. THen the folks who scavenge can just pick up without digging.

      2. That’s interesting. I have a good friend who lives in a city where they supposedly (I have trouble believing it though …) have someone who goes through all the trash and picks out the recyclables. It’s a small city, so I guess they pay someone else to do this? If it gets done. They also have normal recycling, with the blue barrels that get picked up.

        I wonder if it might not be worth complaining to your councilperson? I’m sure the City has a contract with someone who picks up their recyclables, and I’m confident that whoever does it already has to pick out certain things, and re-wash things, and so forth. It shouldn’t be such a big deal, and they ought not to dissuade people from recycling.

        In my building, we have this same problem, but the managers put up surveillance — which is good b/c the cans are near the garage door anyhow — and, I believe, have cut down on the problem greatly. In a way, you can’t blame people, because the rules don’t always make sense.

        Imho, btw, Burbank has a really good recycling center. They take everything but hazardous waste. Old sneakers, old videos, old phones. But they no longer accept from non-residents. : <

        1. I put the deposit things aside on purpose for the scavengers to take without having to root through trash, and also to keep them from running afoul of the “no scavenging” provisions that the trash company negotiated with the county (not with me.) I try to encourage my neighbors to do the same, as it has resulted in less mess for us.
          Reusable items we place on the street on a non-trash day with a “free” sign, or use Freecycle.

          1. Speaking of reusing items, I only discovered it the last month I lived there (because only then did I have massive amounts of recycling to get rid of), but the Cambridge, MA recycling center has a whole area for people to drop off and root among reusable items.

          2. That’s very nice of you. I hadn’t thought of that method of getting around the issue. My guess is that, on balance, casual recyclers (or other better term …) perform a real service, since they pick the recyclables out of the trash in the many areas where there’s no blue bin. This has to be better for all of us, somewhere in the process?

            Interestingly, I recycle a ton of paper, but rarely find recycled paper options in the marketplace. More in recent years, but still not that much. That is, you can get good recycled paper products at TJs, which work fine, but for notepaper and stationery and so forth, I don’t see a lot in stores. Anecdotally, someone told me we send a lot of it abroad. Anyhoo.

          3. NCG,
            I believe I recall hearing something about how recycled paper can be a poor option for writing/printing paper, because of the longer fiber lengths needed in such paper and because recycled paper has to be heavily bleached to be usable. Don’t know if any of this is true, it’s just what I recall being told.

        2. Ohm and all over Pasadena, to my certain knowledge, people go through the trash every night before pickup. In at least one case that I know, the person makes a hundred dollars a week or so, and this helps her immensley.

  5. Years ago, I worked at an Iowa food retailer that was required to accept back empties.

    The ensuing sanitation, pest control, smell, safety, storage, and broken glass problems were not inconsiderable.

    I’m not saying that the retailers should not be required to accept empties; I am saying that such a policy presents overhead costs which might well be defrayed with part of the deposit money, and that the complaints of the retailers have some basis in fact.

    1. IIRC, retailers in Mass got to keep 1c from each bottle’s deposit, I guess from the distributor or taken out of the unclaimed deposits they had to give to the state. Any bottle-bill state readers know how this works?

      1. confirming the above: Mass CMR301CMR04.05 provides that the wholesaler pays the retailer the deposit plus 1c per container handling fee.

  6. To the best of my (very limited) knowledge, most or all American recyclable-deposit systems are about exactly that: recycling. As in, instead of reusing. In some countries, similar systems are used to collect bottles that are then sanitized and re-used, at a considerable ecological benefit compared to recycling.

    1. The issue is more complicated than just reusing is better.

      For example, France used to have a national system of recycling wine bottles for vin ordinaire. The one liter bottles had a star symbol molded in the glass and when you bought wine that came in such a bottle you either paid a deposit (IIRC, a Franc–this was pre-Euro)or got full credit for the empty you brought in. You could also get cash back if you didn’t make a purchase. Some stores in the South even had machines that would fill up your deposit bottle with wine (10, 11 or 12% alcohol, your choice, with the price going up a bit as alcohol level went up) and put a foil cap on the bottle automatically.

      As I understand it, the system was abolished because it gave an advantage to local wine which was illegal under European Community rules–and because the star bottle was seen as stigma that the wine inside was clochard (wino) quality.

      We had much the same system when I was a kid in Chicago. Although the returned bottles differed by brand and each kind was picked up at the retailer by that brand’s distribution truck. If we need a nickel for a popsicle we could usually find a few bottles to return to the store to cover it.

      Apparently, one objection to reusing the glass bottles is that it is said to restrict competition as it is not feasible to send glass bottles to a supplier a thousand miles away for refilling although a distant supplier can ship non-returnable bottles that thousand miles.

  7. I’ve often wondered whether the company that picks up my recycling gets to collect deposits on all my soda cans.

    I drink a lot of diet soda, but can’t stand dealing with the mess, etc. of returning them. It also seems like a big productivity suck. What if my can purchases were scanned into a personal account, back into which my cans were scanned by the recycling co. at their plant? That would be kind of cool. Speaking of which, we could do the same for soup cans, etc.

    1. In Pasadena, they do collect the deposit. In fact this is a big issue because the county considers that the folks who go through the recycling picking out the cans are stealing from the city, money that is used to “defray” the cost of pickup. I’ve tried to get some numbers, but was told they are “proprietary business information”.

      FOr your case, why would any company do this for you? What’s in it for them?

      1. Besides the fact that I pay them already, the point would be to encourage recycling. A can in the trash vs. in the recycling bin still gives me nothing. Honestly, I’ve spent less than 2 minutes thinking about it. Could be interesting though.

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