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The untapped power of bottle deposits could save us from plastic bottle purgatory

Some 480 billion plastic bottles are sold worldwide each year. In the US, less than a third are ever recycled. There’s a proven way to do much better.

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Whenever I walk along Wollaston Beach in Quincy, I pick up the plastic bottles I see — at least, until my arms are full or I get too depressed about it. I try to clean up other plastic debris too, figuring I’m the last line of defense before some poor sea gull or far-off fish chokes to death on these dirty dregs of our consumerism.

It’s easy to assume such litter is the result of a careless nitwit, and it often is. But some of it was disposed of as carefully as one could hope — stuffed in a curbside trash or recycling barrel — before a gust of wind tipped over the bin and sent its contents tumbling toward the beach. A well-meaning recycler who tossed a Poland Spring bottle in a blue bin may see that same bottle on the shoreline a week later and blame it on some phantom litterbug.

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This is why, as much as big beverage companies would like us to believe that litter is a matter of personal responsibility, it’s actually a systemic failure of their own making — and one we should demand they take more responsibility for solving.

Some 480 billion plastic bottles are sold worldwide each year, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company. In the United States, less than a third of such bottles are ever recycled — meaning most end up dumped in landfills, burned in incinerators, or littering our roadways and oceans.

As one of the world’s largest beverage companies, Coca-Cola has made an admirable pledge to recover as many bottles and cans globally as it sells by 2030. For now, though, Coca-Cola still foists much of the expense and hassle of recycling its bottles onto consumers and local governments, who rely on inefficient and costly curbside collection. But there’s a simpler, proven, and far more effective way to recover bottles and cut the climate-punishing production of virgin plastics: a deposit return system.

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Less than a century ago, Americans paid a 2-cent deposit on each 5-cent glass soda bottle, a retail ransom that ensured each bottle’s return and reuse — some two dozen times on average. Today, deposit systems are still incredibly efficient at recovering cans, bottles, and other containers. Plastic bottles with a deposit are recycled at over triple the rate of nonrefundable ones, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

A 2020 study by Keep America Beautiful found that states with deposit laws had about half as many bottles and cans littering the ground as those without them. But bottle deposit laws generally cost beverage companies a few cents per drink in handling fees. That might be why, in the same report, Keep America Beautiful — long funded as a conscience cleanser by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and others — makes no mention of such laws in prescribing solutions to litter. Instead, it heaves that burden onto individuals and municipalities, recommending anti-litter education, more curbside recycling, and added receptacles in public spaces. All worthy ideas, but none likely to cut litter by half.

“That’s been happening for decades now,” says Kirstie Pecci, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “They want you and me to do better to solve this problem, when in actuality we already have a great system for solving the problem that would cost them money, and they just don’t want to do it.”

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Massachusetts has a 40-year-old container deposit law that applies to carbonated soft drinks, beer, and malt beverages, but an updated bottle bill now awaits passage on Beacon Hill. The expansion would add other drinks to the current system — notably bottled water, sports drinks, and “nips,” the miniature liquor bottles — as well as increase the deposit to 10 cents, twice the refund in place since 1982.

Both steps are long overdue. Bottled water eclipsed soda in 2016 as the best-selling beverage in the United States. And a 5-cent deposit just isn’t the motivator now that it was 40 years ago, when a nickel was worth the equivalent of 15 cents today.

Back then, no one anticipated the market dominance of bottled water, says one of the bill’s sponsors, state Senator Cynthia Creem. “So only 42 percent of the beverages sold in Massachusetts are even included in the [current] bottle bill,” she says. And when Oregon upped its deposit to 10 cents in 2017, Creem notes, “Redemption rates skyrocketed, from 64 percent to 90 percent.”

The updated bill would help reclaim 3.1 billion more containers each year in Massachusetts, CRI estimates. Because recycling is far less carbon-intensive than manufacturing virgin materials, that would be like taking over 40,000 cars off the road, according to CRI president Susan V. Collins. But a similar bottle bill expansion was on the ballot in 2014, and while it proved popular in early polls, the beverage industry squashed that support, spending six times as much money as advocates to run often- misleading ads.

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Massachusetts should also pass H.878, an extended producer responsibility (EPR) bill similar to what Maine passed last year (the first US state to do so). That law requires big manufacturers to bear some financial responsibility for recycling their products and packaging. In addition to relieving some of the heavy burden that waste and recycling management places on towns and taxpayers, EPR laws incentivize companies to invest in smarter, more sustainable packaging.

Of course, recycling alone isn’t going to save us from climate change. We need a just and wholesale transition away from fossil fuels throughout our entire economy — starting yesterday. But updating our bottle bill is the very least we can do — an easy win based on proven successes — and an extended producer responsibility law is a good next step.

Companies such as Coca-Cola used to proudly emboss their logos on reusable glass bottles, partly because they wanted those vessels back. It’s time companies producing the plastic on our beaches and roads show that kind of ownership over their products once again.


Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.