According to studies conducted by the Container Recycling Institute, the recycling rate of beverage containers has fallen nearly 20% since 1990, from 60.9% to a dismal 41.5% in 2006. With industries and municipalities generating ever-increasing amounts of solid waste—and area landfills reaching capacity at alarming rates—the need to improve the reclamation rate of recyclable materials in Chicago (and throughout the nation) has reached critical mass. In fact, the Illinois EPA predicts that all of the landfills in the Chicago Metropolitan Area will be filled (and subsequently closed) within the next five to eight years.
Beverage containers make up nearly 80% of all containers sold in the United States, but traditional curbside recycling methods do not capture a satisfactory percentage of these containers. Perhaps this because more than one-third of these beverages are consumed away from home and emptied within minutes, which makes the containers particularly wasteful. In fact, 45-60% of litter in this country is comprised of used beverage containers.
Although the EPA reports that used soda containers (plastic and aluminum) make up only 2.7% of the Municipal Solid Waste stream, this is largely due to their small size and lightweight composition. More than half of the 200 billion beverage containers sold in the U.S. in 2006 wound up in landfills—58 billion of those containers were aluminum cans, one of the most easily recycled materials known to man.
Experts agree that the reycling industry would benefit from a multi-faceted approach, as no easy answer to this problem currently exists. First, recycling has to be convenient for consumers, which is why the Blue Cart Initiative (introduced in 2007, the program will be citywide by 2011) uses the single-stream recycling method. This means that recyclables are not separated until they arrive at the processing center. This method requires less effort by residents and takes up less space in the home, and it also reduces collection costs because crews are able to work faster when they don’t have to sort the recyclables going into the truck. The thought is that residents will be more willing to participate in a recycling program that requires minimal effort.
The second approach to the recycling dilemma is to provide consumers with an added incentive to recycle. One of the most successful incentive programs in existence is the bottle bill, which charges consumers five cents (ten cents in Michigan) per beverage container sold. The perceived added value of returning cans makes these programs more appealing than traditional buy-back programs, which fetch only one or two cents per can. The deposit is then refunded when containers are returned to the retailer. This program was first established in Oregon in 1971, and to date, eleven states have adopted similar programs (although only ten take back aluminum containers, which are exempted from the bottle bill program in Connecticut). Illinois, however, is noticeably absent from this list.
States with bottle bill programs report sharp increases in the recycling of beverage containers, averaging 75-80%. Michigan, with it’s hefty ten-cent deposit, boasts the greatest return rate of nearly 95%, while California, which offers only a three-to-five-cent refund, still has a 58% recycling rate, much higher than the national average. Litter from beverage containers was reduced by 70-83% in these states, with an overall litter reduction of 30-47%.
The money generated from unclaimed deposits (15-30%, as some of these cans are recycled through the municipal recycling program instead, and some are, sadly, thrown away) generally goes back to the state to fund environmental incentives, although some states give a portion to distributors and retailers to offset the costs of the take-back and pick-up. This translates into millions of dollars in most states—wouldn’t this be more effective than the exorbitant taxes imposed by Cook County and the City of Chicago? The current tax on canned beverages is 13.25%, and a liquor tax is added to alcoholic beverages on top of the initial tax. Many Cook County residents get around this by crossing county lines to purchase these items, (which makes the intended use of the tax as revenue generator less effective), and those who don’t never see a penny of that money back.
Last year, Massachusetts Congressman Edward J. Markey introduced the Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act, a nation-wide bottle bill that would encourage large-scale recycling of glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers. Not only would the bill bring this program—its effectiveness already proven by 22% of the country—to the entire nation, it would also improve existing bottle bills, many of which have not yet been updated to include plastic bottles. As Representative Markey explains, “Congress can send the nation a global warming message in a bottle. We can still quench our thirst while reducing our thirst for energy. And we can have carbon dioxide in our fizzy drinks, while cutting down on heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
Some leading environmental and recycling organizations, such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Container Recycling Institute, have already backed the National Bottle Bill, and it seems like the majority of the public would be in favor of the bill as well. According to the Bottle Bill Resource Guide, 70-75% of Americans support a nationwide bill, while 70-85% of residents in states where bottle bills already exist would be in favor of expanding the program to include plastic soda and juice containers. These solutions, combined with the third approach—education and outreach—should help Americans recover many more aluminum cans from the waste stream in years to come.