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Massachusetts has lowest bottle deposit rate, new study finds

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

When it comes to returning empty bottles and cans to grocery stores or redemption centers to get back a nickel deposit, Massachusetts residents lag behind their peers in other states with bottle bills.

The state has the lowest bottle redemption rate among the 10 states with bottle bills, according to a new report from the Container Recycling Institute, a California-based nonprofit.

The report found that redemption rates have not returned to pre-pandemic levels in most bottle bill states for which data is available.

In Massachusetts, only 38 percent of eligible bottles were redeemed for a 5 cent deposit in 2021, a drop from 50 percent in 2019 and 43 percent in 2020, according to the group’s data.

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Massachusetts’ bottle bill law also covers fewer different types of containers than any other state’s. Only 40 percent of containers are covered by deposit in Massachusetts; California and New York, on the other hand, cover about 80 and 90 percent of containers in their bottle bills, respectively.

Among other types of drinks, Massachusetts exempts non-carbonated beverages from its bottle bill, meaning drinks such as water, vitamin drinks, and iced tea are not eligible for deposit.

“There’s nobody debating the importance of this and the impact that it has on our water, our soil, and our own health,” said state Representative Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat, who is helping lead efforts to expand the bottle bill. “We should be leading the way.”

Massachusetts is still ahead of the average US recycling rate of 35 percent for aluminum, glass, and PET plastic bottles and cans. Beverage containers redeemed in bottle bill states have a higher recycling rate than bottles not on deposit, according to the report.

But these drops still have environmental consequences, advocates said.

“This is first and foremost a greenhouse-gas-reducing program,” Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, said in an interview.

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Less greenhouse gases are emitted when creating recycled bottles compared to bottles made from virgin materials, she said.

Collins added that bottle redemption can also reduce litter, save money for municipalities that no longer have to pay for the disposal or litter pickup of the containers, and create jobs in the state for processing the containers.

Collins said the pandemic accelerated a years-long decline in Massachusetts’ redemption rates. In March 2020, the state temporarily suspended enforcing bottle redemption requirements for retailers until June, when requirements were phased back in. Other states implemented similar policies, and generally have not been able to bring bottle return rates back up to what they were pre-pandemic, Collins said.

Massachusetts could improve its redemption rate by adopting policies that have been successful in other states, she said.

Connecticut, for example, will double the deposit value from 5 to 10 cents and expand the bottle redemption program to include sports drinks, bottled tea, and juices over the next two years.

In Massachusetts, Decker and Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem have introduced similar legislation to increase the deposit value from 5 to 10 cents and expand the list of accepted containers to include almost all types.

Creem said she is hopeful the legislation can pass both chambers of the Legislature by the end of formal session on July 31.

“I’m sick of it rolling over,” said Creem, a Democrat from Newton. “This kind of information shows how important our bottle bill will be in making the changes that the data shows need to be made.”

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MASSPIRG executive director Janet Domenitz, a longtime proponent of expanding the state’s bottle bill, said, “We’re not asking for Massachusetts to blaze the trail. We’re looking to the state to catch up with our neighbors.”

Domenitz said the increased deposit value would incentivize more returns. “The deposit has been 5 cents for 40 years,” she said. “Show me one thing that has the same price tag as it did in the 1980s.”

Domenitz added that expanding the types of containers covered could more than double the number of containers eligible for redemption.

Combined, she said the bill would help consumers get back in the habit of redeeming their bottles.

“In a time where so many of the problems in our day-to-day lives seem overwhelming, this is such low-hanging fruit,” she said.


Kate Selig was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @kate_selig.