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States are reviving and upgrading consumer recycling — the nation must follow suit

Why do we recycle? Many of us were taught to do it in elementary school. Reduce, reuse, recycle and — ultimately — save the planet. It was easy to remember and it made you feel like you were doing the right thing. 

The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Recycling is good. It reduces waste, litter and consumption, all of which helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But recycling has become deeply confusing for consumers, which had made for a messier and less efficient system. 

The iconic Mobius Loop, the three chasing arrows that form a triangle, was invented to commemorate the first Earth Day in 1970. Consumers usually understand it as a sign indicating permission to recycle an item. They are often wrong. On today’s packaging, the Mobius Loop can denote anything from recyclability to resin codes, i.e., the type of resin used to make the plastic in the package. 

Even more explicit pleas to consumers, like the ever-present phrase “Please Recycle,” can be misleading. Just because something can be put in the recycling bin, doesn’t mean it ultimately will be recycled. Aseptic cartons, for instance, are often labeled with both the Mobius Loop and “Please Recycle,” yet millions of Americans can’t put cartons in curbside bins and, even where they are collected, some still end up in the landfill.

Thanks to the implementation of deposit return systems, which place a refundable fee on beverage containers, 10 states have seriously improved their recycling programs. Oregon was the first to implement, in 1972, and Hawaii was the most recent, in 2002. Worldwide, hundreds of millions of consumers use deposit return systems to great effect. 

Deposit return systems have been shown to reduce the number of beverage bottles and cans that end up in beaches, parks and landfills. In Oregon, the recapture rate for aluminum cans with deposits on them is over 85 percent, compared to neighboring Washington state, where only 43 percent of metal cans are recycled. The systems also encourage the return of glass that is in good shape; glass bottles recycled for deposit are far less likely to be broken or unclean —causing problems for recycling equipment — than those recycled at the curb. 

The pollution problem in our oceans and other bodies of water is well-documented, but things are even worse than most consumers realize. Each week, the average American eats a credit card-sized amount of plastic, which enters their food and water supply as plastic breaks down over time. According to a study from the environmental group 5 Gyres, beverage items like bottles and bottle caps make up 30 percent of all plastic litter found in the environment. 

With national stand-alone legislation still being developed, and since the wheels of Congress move slowly, states like Illinois are working to pass bills to implement deposit return systems; both are next door to states that have overseen their own systems for decades. New deposit return systems also have the benefit of learning from established best practices. This includes many consumer-friendly features, such as ensuring that retailers of a certain size accept deposits, that collection sites are not spread too far apart in population centers, and that rural collections are appropriately customized to less-populated communities. In Oregon, shoppers can even scan a QR Code that sends the value of their deposits directly into a college savings fund.. 

Blue, purple and red states alike have all improved their recycling systems, in a pro-consumer way, through legislation that implemented deposit return systems for beverage containers sold locally. States like Illinois should act to pass deposit return system legislation immediately, and others should follow suit. 

Done correctly, these programs lead to less environmental waste and reduced carbon emissions, and a more efficient recycling system overall. Reduce, reuse, recycle still applies in 2022, as long as it’s done right.

Sally Greenberg is the executive director of the National Consumers League.

Tags Container deposit legislation Container-deposit legislation Plastic recycling Recycling Recycling in the United States Waste management

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