BFAIR buys popular container and redemption center in North Adams (copy)

Sorted bags of redeemable cans and bottles are packed into a trailer at the Northern Berkshire Container Redemption Center in North Adams for transport.

We need to stop kicking the can down the road.

Since its passage nearly 40 years ago, the bottle bill has been Massachusetts’ most successful recycling program. But time is catching up to the law, and it needs updating to deliver the best results.

A lot has changed in Massachusetts since the original bottle bill was established in 1983.

First of all, our waste problem has grown worse. According to the new Trash in America report released by MASSPIRG and other regional public interest groups, the average American throws out nearly 1,800 pounds of trash each year. That’s a massive increase from the 1,300 pounds of trash the average American threw away in 1980. And Massachusetts is not immune to this wastefulness. We produce nearly 6 million tons of waste in the commonwealth annually. Most of this trash consists of goods we use for a matter of minutes before throwing away — like beverage containers.

Second, the beverage market has changed dramatically. In 2015, the bottle bill kept more than 1.2 billion beverage containers out of our trash, but there was a total of 6 billion beverage containers sold in Massachusetts that same year and most of those containers didn’t, and still don’t, have a deposit under the current law. That’s because many of the drinks on grocery shelves today — water bottles, sports drinks, iced teas and more — did not exist when the law passed in 1982. These new containers are the ones currently littering our parks, cluttering our waterways and filling up our landfills.

And third, a nickel is not what it was in 1983. There is much less incentive for consumers to redeem their beverage containers than there once was. While the commonwealth’s redemption rate peaked at 71 percent in 2010, it fell to 43 percent in 2020, the lowest of any bottle bill state. At the other end of that spectrum, with the highest redemption rates, are states like Michigan, Oregon and Maine that have 10-cent deposits and whose redemption rates average around 85 percent.

With these changes in Massachusetts over the past 40 years, it’s time for the bottle bill to catch up. When we and other advocates tried to update the law at the ballot box in 2014, the bottling and beverage industries spent more than $9 million dollars opposing the change, promising “better ways” to recycle, and ultimately the initiative was defeated. Since then, no promised “better way” has appeared. Recycling in Massachusetts has stalled.

Meanwhile, around the country and the world, new container deposit laws have been enacted for more than 350 million people, and still others have modernized their laws with great success. When Oregon updated their bottle bill in 2017 to include more types of beverage containers and a 10-cent deposit, the redemption rate jumped from 64 percent to 86 percent over the span of two years. Likewise, since updating their extensive container deposit law in 1990, Michigan has seen the redemption rate rise to 89 percent and their total waste stream reduced by 6 to 8 percent each year.

In response to growing piles of litter and waste in the commonwealth, state Rep. Marjorie Decker and state Sen. Cynthia Creem have filed an updated bottle bill in the House and Senate (H.3289/S.2149) which would cover nips, water bottles and more container sizes and types of beverages, and increase the deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents. With this bigger, better bottle bill, we could more effectively clean up our roadsides, reduce plastic in our rivers and waterways and stop burying or burning our beverage containers in landfills and incinerators.

Updating the bottle bill is one of many steps we must take to move away from our throwaway, single-use culture. The facts show that deposits on containers reduce waste and litter, and improve our communities. As with any big problem, there’s no one silver bullet. But with an updated bottle bill, we don’t need to start from scratch, or build anything new.

We just need to double down on what already works: the tried-and-true recycling success of the bottle bill.

Sarah Becker is a zero waste policy associate for MASSPIRG. Stephanie Blumenthal is the founder of Sheffield Saves. Jenny Hansell is president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.