JUAN IS GRATEFUL for New York’s bottle bill, which imposes a refundable nickel deposit on bottles and cans of water, soda and beer. He and his wife earn about $500 a week by collecting empties from recycling bins, bars and restaurants in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which they trade for money at a local redemption centre. Their jangling cart is among the many that helped the state recycle over 5bn drinks containers in 2016. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, now wants to expand the bill to cover most non-alcoholic containers, to help fight litter and boost recycling throughout the state. Juan and his wife are delighted. Companies that handle the state’s recycling, however, are howling.
Most municipal recycling programmes work because the costs of collecting and sorting recyclables are largely offset by the value of these materials on commodity markets. But China, once the leading buyer of America’s recyclables, upended these markets last year by banning most waste imports. Prices for scrap paper, cardboard and plastic have plunged. Recycling companies that once turned a tidy profit are now losing money and sending material to landfills. Local governments are debating whether to cancel their recycling services or charge residents for what had always been free.
Some argue that bottle bills offer a handy way to boost recycling without adding real costs. In the ten states where container deposits are already in effect—most of them introduced well before municipal recycling began—they reduce litter, raise recovery rates and create a cleaner stream of recyclables, says Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute, an advocacy group. Unredeemed deposits often help pad state coffers. New York, for example, earns around $100m in revenue from its bottle bill every year.
The problem is that these bills encourage people to divert valuable materials, like aluminium and PET plastic, away from kerbside bins to a separate system run primarily by beverage manufacturers and distributors. This not only creates inefficiencies (more trucks, more bureaucracy), but also shrinks revenues for recycling companies left with less valuable materials.
Tom Outerbridge of SIMS, which has a long-term contract to process all the metal, glass and plastic collected by New York City’s sanitation department, says New York’s current bill, introduced in 1982, already cuts the value of every tonne of material SIMS receives by $15-30. He estimates that the governor’s expanded bill could cost another $30 per tonne. The New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling estimates that the expanded bill would cost recyclers $10m in lost commodity value, on top of $42m in new costs because of China-related turmoil.
Instead of putting a bounty on materials that recycling companies need to stay afloat, Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defence Council, a conservation group, recommends placing redemption values on things that are difficult to recycle, such as more glass (wine and liquor bottles, for example), batteries, paints and carpets. Collecting these materials will not be easy, but at least it will spare local recycling operators a financial headache.