Solid Waste & Recycling


DIVERSION: First of Its Kind

For more than thirty years a battle has raged between the soft-drink industry and environmentalists over how to recover beverage containers for recycling. Environmentalists promote bottle bills (depos...

For more than thirty years a battle has raged between the soft-drink industry and environmentalists over how to recover beverage containers for recycling. Environmentalists promote bottle bills (deposit-return programs) because of their high recovery rates and the fact that costs are paid by consumers, producers and in some cases retailers. Beverage and grocery industries promote municipal curbside programs because, for the most part, the programs incur no cost to industry.

In the United States, the battlefield is the state legislature where, following the proposal of a bottle bill, armies of industry lobbyists gather all available artillery and usually kill the bill. Similarly, an angry battalion of local politicians, community members and activists usually defeat repeal efforts.

The war is intense and costs millions for lobbyists, studies and public relations campaigns. But the millennium brings hope of a truce.

On January 16, 2002, at the U.S. National Recycling Coalition’s annual conference in Seattle, Washington, representatives from the environmental community (represented by the Container Recycling Institute), state government (Minnesota) and industry (Coca-Cola Company) gathered to discuss a report prepared for phase one of the Multi-Stakeholder Recovery Project (MSRP). The report, entitled “Understanding Beverage Container Recovery: A Value Chain Assessment” is an armistice of sorts, signed by fourteen stakeholders known as the MSRP Task Force.

“This is the first report on U.S. beverage container recycling programs prepared with active participation by a diverse group of stakeholders and should be used to promote fact-based approaches in future dialogues over beverage container recycling policies,” the report states. It continues, “we jointly agree that it is an important first step towards consensus solutions.”

The long awaited report is a snapshot of the typical costs, benefits and effectiveness of recovery programs in the U.S. from 1999. It does not recommend a particular program, estimate the social and environmental costs of not recycling, nor does it address implementation issues and stakeholder concerns about existing or future programs. While this may seem limited in scope, it is still the first time in U.S. history that all stakeholders involved in the value-chain of the beverage life-cycle agree on the key conclusions.


First, the report states that “beverage container recycling rates are likely to steadily decline in future years in the absence of new recovery and market development initiatives.” It cites various reasons for this decline, like the growth of PET containers consumed away from the home, declining support and funding for recycling, and the relative value of deposit amounts. (Five-cents is worth less than it used to be).

The report states that traditional deposit systems have an average redemption rate of 78 per cent, but considering that most programs cover soft drink and beer containers only, the total beverage container recovery rate is actually to 62 per cent. While curbside and drop-off programs may capture all beverage container types, average recovery rates are 19 per cent and 4.5 per cent respectively. The report also acknowledges the various mix of programs from state to state (i.e., deposit states may also have curbside and drop-off programs) for a cross-country recovery rate of 72 per cent in deposit states and 28 per cent in non-deposit states.

Regarding net costs, the report shows an average of 1.39 cents (U.S.) per unit cross-country to recover 277 containers per person. In deposit states, the cost is an average of 1.53 cents per unit to recover 490 containers per person, and in non-deposit states, 1.25 cents per unit to recover 191 containers per person. But the report fails to go one step further and review the “cost effectiveness” of the recovery mechanisms. In simple terms, cost effectiveness measures how much it costs to attain a certain performance. Failing to undertake this analysis renders comparison meaningless, like comparing the price of a BMW to a Toyota without accounting for the relative performance differences. (See chart.)

Finally, the study reviews the significant environmental benefits associated with increased recovery, with data presented on reduced greenhouse gas emissions, use of land for disposal, and reduced litter leading to fewer injuries and harm to farm machinery.

While the MSRP is a first step in addressing cost and performance data, other beverage producers are fuming over the results. Shortly after the report was released, the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) somewhat predictably issued a press release chock-full of brutish criticism, using language like “study flawed and riddled with bias” and “sloppy research” with numbers “manipulated to achieve a desired conclusion.”

So where does this leave Coca-Cola? Perhaps its position is best illustrated by Ben Jordan, environmental manager of Coca-Cola North America who began his talk in Seattle with a quote, “Leadership means not being afraid to stick your neck out.”

Clarissa Morawski is principal of CM Consulting, based in Toronto, Ontario.

Over the next year, Solid Waste & Recycling magazine will provide cost and recovery data on various Canadian beverage container recovery programs. All information will be based on recent income statements from program operators with a cost analysis undertaken by CM Consulting.

Bang For Your Buck: Cost effectiveness calculations

Cost in U.S. Per capita Cost per unit divided by the
Cents containers per capita number of
recovered containers recovered
TOTAL Average 1.39 277 0.005 cents per unit
recovered per person
Deposit States 1.53 490 0.003 cents per unit
recovered per person
Non-Deposit 1.25 191 0.007 cents per unit
States recovered per person

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