Scrub Hub: Why doesn't Indiana have a bottle bill program like other states?

·6 min read

Recycling has long been a hot topic in Indianapolis. In fact, just a few years ago, IndyStar did an investigation that found Indiana’s capital is the most wasteful big city in the country.

We have the lowest recycling rate of any of the major cities, and our participation rate is also particularly low. That’s because Indianapolis does not have a universal curbside recycling program for its residents. Anyone who wants to recycle has to pay extra — and not a lot of people do.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, we get a lot of recycling-related questions submitted to the Scrub Hub. People want to know if different types of items can be recycled or how to be the best recycler.

One of the latest questions we’ve received that we’ll be looking at for this edition of the Scrub Hub is about what are called beverage container deposit laws — otherwise known as bottle bills. Leigh from Fishers asked: Why doesn’t Indiana have a return deposit on bottles and cans like some other states do?

To find the answer, we spoke with a recycling expert and looked at the history of bottle bills in Indiana and beyond. Keep reading to learn more.

Short answer: Indiana's failed attempts at a bottle bill

There are 10 states across the country with bottle bills. Indiana, obviously, is not among them.

The closest state with such a program is our neighbor to the north: Michigan. Other states include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Main, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Vermont.

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The way bottle bills work is by adding a small deposit on top of the price of a beverage, which consumers pay at checkout. That deposit is returned to the consumer, however, when the empty can or bottle is returned to their grocery store or another eligible location for recycling. Think of it like buying the beverage but just borrowing the packaging to return at a later time.

The deposit amounts vary per state and are usually between five and 15 cents. They can also differ based on the type of beverage or the volume of the container.

Aluminum cans fill a silo at the Republic Services processing facility in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.
Aluminum cans fill a silo at the Republic Services processing facility in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

There were several attempts to establish programs in Indiana, but they never went anywhere. Beverage container deposit bills were proposed three different times between 2009 and most recently in 2015. None of them ever got out of the committees to which they were assigned. In fact, they never even got hearings.

No other attempt has been made since then.

“Bottle bills are just an interesting thing,” said Allyson Mitchell, executive director of recycling nonprofit Circular Indiana. “All of the states that have them love them. And all the states that don’t have them say they’re never going to get them.”

Long answer: Bottle bills better for recycling?

Bottle bills have a lot of pros and cons, according to Mitchell, which is why some tout them and others want to steer clear.

Vermont was the first state to pass a bottle bill in the 1950s, though slightly different from the ones we know today. It prohibited the sale of beverages in non-refillable bottles. Then in the 1970s, Oregon was the first to require all beer and soft drink containers have refundable deposits.

The other states then followed suit.

“It seems like bottle bills were very popular and effective in the early years when recycling was gaining a foothold,” Mitchell said. “And at the same time, curbside recycling was proliferating. So it kind of was a competition for what’s the best method.”

Items in a bag might seem to be a good idea for recycling, but it adds a step in recycling as someone has to open the bag for the items to go through the sorter, as seen at Ray's Indianapolis Recycling Facility, part of Ray's Trash Service, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.
Items in a bag might seem to be a good idea for recycling, but it adds a step in recycling as someone has to open the bag for the items to go through the sorter, as seen at Ray's Indianapolis Recycling Facility, part of Ray's Trash Service, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Curbside recycling is the classic recycling program: Residents fill up bins with recyclable materials and take them out to the curb next to their garbage bins for regular pick up.

A few states, like the ones mentioned above, got out front and got their programs established, Mitchell said is her understanding. But in many other states, the curbside method took off first.

In areas where there is a good curbside program, Mitchell acknowledges that a bottle bill might not be such a good thing because it doubles up on infrastructure to collect some of the same materials. Though Indianapolis does not have a comprehensive curbside program, the bottle bill still does not seem to be a preferred option, Mitchell said.

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They can be quite expensive to set up and take a lot of infrastructure. There are the machines, there needs to be participating stores and sufficient space to install them, and not to mention the mindset of consumers to collect and return the containers.

There also is a concern that a new bottle bill program could cause financial strain on an existing curbside one, Mitchell said. That’s because the bottle returns primarily collect plastic, glass and aluminum — some of the most valuable recyclable materials. If those are no longer in the curbside bins, companies and cities might not be able to get enough value from what remains to support the service.

A trommel acts like a big sifter, sorting items by size at Ray's Indianapolis Recycling Facility, part of Ray's Trash Service, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.
A trommel acts like a big sifter, sorting items by size at Ray's Indianapolis Recycling Facility, part of Ray's Trash Service, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Still, the argument remains that bottle bills are very effective for recycling.

By giving people an incentive to return their recyclables — in the form of the repaid deposit — this method has proven to reduce litter and increase the recycling rates of containers.

Look at Michigan and Oregon, for example. These two states have the highest return rates of those with bottle bills: Consumers return more than 85% of eligible beverage containers for recycling, according to a white paper on the topic.

Even more, the material is really clean, Mitchell said. It’s not contaminated with a mixture of non-recyclable materials or those that are hard to extract because the machines accept containers of only certain sizes and materials.

Several companies and brands used to be against bottle bills, Mitchell said, because they worried that the deposit would be viewed as a tax on their products and discourage consumers from buying them. But now, she added, some of those same companies need those materials for packaging and realize the high quality recyclables they get from bottle bill states.

Flattened cans are bound together at the end of the recycling process at the Ray's Indianapolis Recycling Facility, part of Ray's Trash Service, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.
Flattened cans are bound together at the end of the recycling process at the Ray's Indianapolis Recycling Facility, part of Ray's Trash Service, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Mitchell lived in Michigan for a few years and loved the bottle program. Where those programs exist, she thinks it makes sense to maintain them and make improvements where possible.

But on the whole, in today’s environment, she said a broader coalition of people want to invest dollars in bigger and better curbside infrastructure. That’s what Indianapolis continues to work on — so stay tuned.

If you have more questions about Indianapolis’ recycling future, or any other topics, let us know! You can ask us by submitting a question through our Google form below.

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Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at sarah.bowman@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana recycling: Why Hoosiers can't return bottles and cans for cash