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Time to upgrade our successful bottle law

The law has worked well — but it needs to catch up with the times.

The recycling section at the Williamstown landfill in Williamstown in May 2020.Gillian Jones/Associated Press

Since its passage nearly four decades ago, the bottle bill has been a remarkable and well-recognized success in Massachusetts — but now it needs updating.

First, however, consider its effects. One seldom any longer sees a returnable can or bottle left as litter on the street. Tens of thousands of tons of could-be trash have been recycled. In 2015, for example, some 1.2 billion beverage containers were redeemed and recovered, thereby keeping about 94,000 tons of container trash out of landfills or garbage incinerators, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

For those who don’t mind paying a little extra for a cleaner environment, returnables are easy to donate to a youth organization bottle-drive or just to leave out for the entrepreneurial people who retrieve cans and bottles for income. For those who prefer to get their deposit back, that is made especially easy by redemption centers. No surprise, then, that today, four of the six New England states have bottle bills. The outliers: New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

But it’s now time to modernize the Massachusetts law, in part because it has never been comprehensive enough, in part because the trends in the drinks industry have overgrown the trellis of the law. The current statute requires a redeemable deposit on glass, plastic, and aluminum and other metal containers that hold carbonated soft drinks, beer and other malt beverages, and mineral waters. The law doesn’t apply to wine or liquor bottles or non-carbonated drinks. Nor does it cover nips, the small glass or plastic bottles of liquor favored by concertgoers and regular outdoor drinkers — and which are so prevalent as park litter.


When the bottle bill first took effect, people would have thought it odd to buy bottled water. But bottled waters have caught on in a big way — and their plastic containers have become an environmental problem. Some 90 percent of them end up in landfills, where they take decades to degrade. Nor was there then the efflorescence of sports drinks, iced teas, and juices that we see today.


According to state Representative Marjorie Decker, Democrat of Cambridge and House sponsor of a bill to update the bottle law, from 2015 to 2018 the number of containerized beverages sold in Massachusetts increased by some 500 million. Decker’s bill, cosponsored by state Senator Cynthia Stone Creem, Democrat of Newton, would raise the deposit from a nickel to a dime and cover containers from nips up to three-liter plastic bottles. It would apply to the containers for almost any liquid sold commercially for oral consumption, and so would cover water, energy drinks, teas, juices, and the like.

As a nickel has lost its value over four decades, the state’s redemption rate, which was at 71 percent in 2010, had slipped to 50 percent by 2019. Evidence from other states suggests that upping the deposit to a dime would substantially increase that rate. Certainly states that have 10-cent deposits have higher redemption rates: Oregon, 86 percent; Michigan, 89 percent; and California, where the dime only applies to containers of more than 24 ounces, 67 percent.

Oregon’s experience is particularly edifying. In 2016, its redemption rate was 64 percent. In 2017, the state hiked its deposit from 5 to 10 cents. Its return rate for 2019 was almost 86 percent.


Massachusetts hasn’t updated its law since it took effect, in 1983. When advocates tried, via the ballot, in 2014, the beverage industry dumped millions into a successful effort to beat the measure. They hired big-name consultants and produced tinny ads that played fast and loose with the facts to do so.

So why try again? Well, back then, there was much deflective talk of finding better ways to deal with containers, remedies like more effective curbside recycling. Those haven’t, in the main, materialized — even as beverage containers have proliferated. Secondly, the environmental sensibility has increased since then, with a higher civic priority on recycling and reusing and reducing the waste stream.

It’s time to build on the success of a middle-aged law by giving it an update that will make it even better — and relevant for virtually all beverage containers sold in Massachusetts.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.