Why do we recycle? Many of us learned to do this 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, waste and consumption, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But recycling has become deeply confusing to consumers, creating a messier and less efficient system.
The iconic Mobius Loop, the three arrows that form a triangle, was invented to commemorate the first Earth Day in 1970. Consumers generally understand it as a sign indicating permission to recycle an item. They are often wrong. On packaging today, the Mobius Loop can denote anything from recyclability to resin codes, i.e. the type of resin used to make the plastic in the packaging.
Even more explicit appeals to consumers, such as the ubiquitous phrase “Please recycle,” can be misleading. Just because something can be put in the recycling bin doesn’t mean it will ultimately be recycled. Aseptic cartons, for example, are often labeled with both the Mobius loop and “Please Recycle,” but millions of Americans can’t put the cartons in curbside bins and, even where they’re collected , some still end up in the landfill.
Through the implementation of deposit-refund systems, which charge reimbursable fees 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 are successfully using deposit systems.
Deposit-refund systems have been shown to reduce the number of beverage bottles and cans that end up on beaches, parks and landfills. In Oregon, the recovery rate for aluminum cans containing deposits is over 85%, compared to neighboring Washington State, where only 43% of metal cans are recycled. The systems also promote the return of glass in good condition; glass bottles recycled for deposit are much less likely to be broken or soiled, causing problems for recycling equipment, than those recycled at the curb.
The problem of pollution in our oceans and other water bodies is well documented, but the situation is even worse than most consumers realize. Every week, the average American eats a credit card-sized amount of plastic, which gets into their food and water supply as the plastic breaks down over time. According to a study by environmental group 5 Gyres, beverages like bottles and bottle caps account for 30% of all plastic waste found in the environment.
While stand-alone national legislation is still being drafted and the wheels of Congress move slowly, states like Illinois are scrambling to pass bills to implement filing systems; both are next to states that have overseen their own systems for decades. New deposit systems also have the advantage of drawing on 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 too far apart in population centers, and that rural collections are appropriately adapted to less populated communities. In Oregon, buyers can even scan a QR code that sends the value of their deposits directly to a college savings fund.
Blue, purple and red states have all improved their recycling systems, in a pro-consumer way, through legislation that has implemented deposit-refund systems for beverage containers sold locally. States like Illinois should act to pass deposit system legislation immediately, and others should follow suit.
Done correctly, these programs result in less environmental waste and carbon emissions, as well as a more efficient recycling system overall. Reduce, reuse, recycle still applies in 2022, as long as it’s done right.
Exit Greenberg is the executive director of the National Consumers League.