From 1982 to 2009, Delaware had a beverage container deposit return system through the Beverage Container Regulation. In 2010, three bills were put forth, one of which aimed to use unredeemed deposits* to fund food banks, another to support a free school breakfast program, and the third to repeal the deposit system and replace it with a new tax. Ultimately, the repeal bill, SB 234, was passed, leading to the elimination of the deposit return system. It was replaced with a Universal Recycling Law effective from December 1, 2010. This marked the end of the refund system by March 1, 2011, with retailers required to pay a 4¢ Recycling Fee to the Delaware Recycling Fund for every covered beverage container sold. The bill also established the Recycling Public Advisory Council and the Recycling Grants and Low-Interest Loan Program to boost recycling efforts. While the bill aimed to promote a more comprehensive recycling program, it marked the end of Delaware's long-standing deposit-return system for beverage containers.
Since then, Delaware’s overall municipal solid waste (MSW) has increased in part due to this change. The Universal Recycling Program in Delaware collects all packaging and printed paper through single-stream recycling systems, resulting in a significant amount of residual waste, including recyclables and non-recyclables, being landfilled. The quality of glass collected through the new program is lower, leading to increased processing costs for manufacturers and a greater portion of glass being repurposed as road fill instead of being recycled. Plastic recyclers have also reported a high contamination rate of PET collected through single-stream recycling systems.
Additionally, the universal recycling program faced financial challenges. The transition to Delaware's new recycling program was funded through a 4-cent non-refundable recycling fee, aiming to establish the Delaware Recycling Fund for issuing grants and low-interest loans to support waste management infrastructure. However, despite the projected revenue of $22 million from 2011 to 2014, only $14 million was raised primarily due to the difficulties in collecting fees from specific beverage sellers like vending machines and certain stores. The program faced additional challenges as only $8 million in grants were awarded from 2011 to 2016, with a significant portion allocated to waste haulers and municipalities. In 2016 the remaining balance in the fund, $5 million, was swept from the recycling fund and placed in the state’s general fund.
Delaware’s previous deposit return system weaknesses offer some lessons. It was limited to only glass and plastic beverage containers used for carbonated drinks, representing less than 20% of all beverage containers sold in the state. It also did not have provisions to ensure collected containers at retailers were recycled. Weaker bottle bills needed to be modernized, not eliminated. A comprehensive, enforceable bottle bill leads to higher recycling rates and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
A strong deposit return system and a universal recycling program are not mutually exclusive and together can lead to increased recycling rates for beverage containers and other containers. States with deposit return systems consistently show high recovery rates for beverage containers while those with only curbside recycling programs do not. In the U.S., the average return rate in deposit states for deposit-bearing containers is 62.1%; in non-deposit states, the average is 26.7%.
*Unclaimed deposits: When consumers choose not to redeem their used beverage containers for the deposit value (either because they recycled them through curbside, drop-off, or public space recycling programs--or because they threw them in the trash or littered them), the deposit money is considered “unclaimed.” Other terms are “abandoned” and “unredeemed.”