Curbside or Deposits: Which is Better?
The question is often asked, "Which is better, deposits or curbside, buybacks or drop-offs?" The answer is that these recycling options are not mutually exclusive. A report by Dr. James E. McCarthy of the Congressional Research Service (1993) titled Bottle Bills and Curbside Recycling: Are They Compatible found "Both systems can serve as elements of comprehensive recycling programs. Neither constitutes a comprehensive program by itself. Neither excludes the use of the other."
The argument has been wrongly cast in either/or terms. Policymakers must remain clear about what it is they want to accomplish. If the goal is to maximize recovery of recyclables, reduce reliance on raw materials for manufacturing new containers, and maximize waste diversion, then a combination of recovery options should be employed to ensure the highest diversion and recovery rates possible.
Ten states benefit from a comprehensive recycling system that includes both container deposits AND curbside recycling. In fact, more people have access to curbside recycling in bottle bill states than in non-bottle bill states. BioCycle's 2001 "State of Garbage" report revealed that, on average, 79% of the population in the ten bottle bill states is served by curbside recycling. Only 37% of the population in the forty non-bottle bill states has access to curbside recycling.
Curbside recycling programs and deposit systems each have benefits and limitations.
- Deposit programs target 'beverage' containers, but do not target non-beverage glass, plastic and steel containers.
- Curbside programs target all containers consumed at home, but do not target containers purchased and consumed away from home.
- Because there is no financial incentive to recycle, participation rates are much lower with curbside programs than with deposit programs.
- Materials collected through deposit programs are of a much higher quality than materials collected through curbside recycling programs.
- Curbside recycling is funded by government and taxpayers while deposit systems are funded by producers and consumers
Deposits: "Bang for the Buck"
A 2002 report prepared for the Multi-Stakeholder Recovery Project of Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling (BEAR), titled "Understanding Beverage Container Recycling: A Value Chain Assessment" [Download PDF,350kb] found that a combination of recycling methods in deposit states results in beverage container recycling rates more than two and a half times higher than in non-deposit states. The 10 deposit states recycle 490 containers per capita per year, at a net cost of .53¢ per unit. The 40 non-deposit states, which rely solely on curbside programs and drop-off centers, recycle 191 containers per capita per year at a net cost of 1.25¢ per unit, as the table below shows.
|Overall Recovery Rate
|Normalized Per-capita containers recovered
|Net cost per unit*
|10 Deposit States
|From Table ES-1 in "Understanding Beverage Container Recovery: A Value Chain Assessment"
|*Including material sales revenues, less funds from unredeemed deposits if applicable
Deposit Systems and Curbside Programs are Compatible
Several other studies have researched the economic effect of a deposit system on an existing curbside program. In 1991, the Seattle Solid Waste Utility conducted its own analysis to determine the impact of a national bottle bill on the economics of the City's recycling program, one of the oldest and most successful curbside recycling programs in the nation. The study, titled Potential Impacts of a National Bottle Bill on Seattle's Curbside Recycling Program, found that 42 to 54 percent more beverage container tonnage would be diverted, while there would be an overall net system savings to the city between 236,917 and 632,774 dollars. They concluded, "A bottle bill would divert additional tonnage with no significant impact to ether City costs or curbside recycling profits."
The City of Cincinnati found that overlaying a beverage container deposit system with its curbside program would result in a 60 percent recovery rate increase while simultaneously decreasing the city's recycling costs from 94 dollars per ton to 72 dollars per ton.
Specific impacts of a deposit program on an existing curbside program will vary depending on the particular local economies of the curbside program. However, certain trends can be expected.
- Overall beverage container recovery rates will increase significantly.
- The quality of materials in both systems will improve, as the breaking of glass and its associated contamination, particularly in commingled systems, to other material streams is drastically reduced.
- Curbside programs will lose aluminum revenue. However, loss of aluminum revenue is likely to result anyway due to the continued growth of plastics over aluminum in the container market.
- Loss of aluminum revenue will be offset by the loss of low-value glass and plastics, which either have high cost per volume collection rates or low-end market prices.
- Finally, a deposit program in conjunction with a curbside program will result in savings to local governments, as it will shift the financial responsibility of beverage container recovery to the producers, thus saving the local government collection and processing costs.
See also: Understanding Beverage Container Recovery (Executive summary of a report on various strategies of collecting containers for recycling) [PDF, 350 KB]
Curbside vs Beverage Fact Sheet (Curbside Recycling Access Rates and Beverage Container Recycling
July 2012) [PDF, 246 KB]