Massachusetts Recycling Infrastructure:
Economic and Environmental Impacts of an Updated Bottle Bill
A network of state-owned MRFs did not materialize. Most residential recyclable materials are processed by nine Massachusetts MRFs, run by six private companies . Containers that fall under proposed Bottle Bill legislation include historically high-value materials such as aluminum cans and PET plastic bottles. Glass beverage bottles, also covered under potential Bottle Bill legislation, are used for beneficial reuse at an expense.
The National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA), a solid waste industry trade association, published a 2022 report listing current MRF tonnage composition and respective revenues. Their data states that current PET, aluminum, and glass beverage bottles account for 24.7% of revenue per ton using 2021 prices, or 33.7% of revenue per ton using five year average costs* . It is important to note that bottle deposit systems do not achieve 100% redemption. The portion of containers not returned, representing a portion of revenue recovered without deposit redemption at MRFs, can only be estimated by statistical modeling . The same NWRA study modeled six different redemption scenarios that projected a fixed cost/ton increase from $8.50 – $15.20, depending on scenario . These projections depend heavily on consumer participation in container redemption. Michigan’s DRS is one of the most successful systems, with a deposit of $0.10 on applicable containers and a return rate of 88.7% in 2019. In contrast, Massachusetts currently maintains a $0.05 deposit on applicable containers and saw a return rate of 50% in 2019 . The NWRA study assumes a 65% return rate with a $0.05 deposit, and an 80% return rate with a $0.10 deposit. This would mean a significant loss of revenue for MRFs and potential increased costs for municipalities.
Studies from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI) highlight the economic benefit of the Massachusetts DRS [21, 22]. This report focuses on the infrastructure of container redemption, employment by this system, and the cash flow related to bottle deposits. In 2015, Massachusetts had 1,480 jobs related to the collection, transport, and processing of deposit containers . These jobs are based on a 59% deposit container return rate and could increase with higher return rates. This study also states that 1.2 billion containers were redeemed for their deposit. These containers were worth approximately $19 million as materials, versus $60 million as containers carrying a $0.05 per piece deposit. This highlights the stark difference between a container’s value as a commodity versus its deposit value.
It is unclear how the redirection of materials from MRFs will impact municipalities. The above CRI study stated that “by redirecting containers from the municipal waste stream, the Bottle Bill saves cities and towns the cost associated with collection, recycling, and/or disposal of those containers; these cost savings are likely on the order of $20 million annually.” This study does not give information regarding the steps taken to arrive at an annual savings of $20 million; therefore we cannot extrapolate the influence of the Bottle Bill legislation on individual municipalities. Alternately, the NWRA concluded from their models that Bottle Bill expansion could result in an increased cost of $2.50-$4.50 per household annually for municipalities. These numbers appear in opposition, but it is important to note that CRI is presenting data based on the 2015 scenario of a waste stream that developed in conjunction with the development of MRFs. The NWRA study presents a model of a sudden change in MRF tonnage composition. Redirected aluminum and PET containers would presumably increase tipping fees for municipalities, but reduced tonnage would mean municipalities would have to pay to handle less volume. Inversely, removing glass from waste streams would decrease MRF costs. The effect on each municipality would depend on the way in which they handle their solid waste.
- Municipalities with a transfer station that hauls their own materials would see a direct effect of reduced volume in trucking costs and fewer containers, but will possibly pay increased tipping fees per trailer to a MRF that has adjusted prices to compensate for lost revenue from aluminum and PET.
- Municipalities with a transfer station that hires trucking and pays per load would enjoy fewer trucking fees, though these may be adjusted by haulers to make up for lost revenue, and the municipality will likely pay increased tipping fees to a MRF.
- Municipalities utilizing curbside pickup have a less linear relationship between volume and price. The number of households and total tonnage are factored into the cost of curbside pickup, and the amount that each of these factors contribute varies among contracts. To put it simply, fewer containers in the recycling bin do not reduce the number of stops a garbage truck has to make. This scenario is further altered by the potential for increased MRF tipping fees.
- MRFs that have access to non-compacted containers and that implement modern scanning equipment, or which open redemption centers, could theoretically achieve competitive advantages.
Expansion of the Massachusetts Bottle Bill is not only an economic question; it is an important environmental one. The effects of DRS on litter have been hotly debated, however, evidence suggests that deposit systems effectively reduce litter and ocean plastics. A 2020 study by Clean Virginia Waterways found that bottles and cans made up 22% of littered items reported in Virginia, compared to states with Bottle Bills that reported an average of 8.7% bottle and can litter . Similarly, comparison of larger coastal debris surveys from 28 states found that there were 38% fewer beverage containers in coastal litter of Bottle Bill states versus those without deposit legislation . Studies from the 1970’s, performed in states that had recently adopted bottle deposit legislation, observed dramatic differences in litter in the same area before and after. Within the first year of implementation of container deposits in Oregon, beverage-related roadside trash had declined by 66% and total litter was reduced by 11%. Similarly, Michigan saw an 82% reduction in container litter and 41%reduction in total litter along highways in the first year of container deposits. In Maine and Vermont, the first year of bottle deposit legislation saw beverage container litter reduced by 69-77% and 76%, respectively (reviewed in ). A significant reduction in total litter directly after DRS legislation is not only the result of fewer beverage containers, but also a reflection of social attitude. Research has demonstrated that people are more likely to litter in areas that already contain litter rather than areas that are litter free [24-26]. Reduction in litter-related behavior might be considered a secondary benefit of successful DRS legislation.
Below is a selection of articles representing environmental advocates and industry groups.
*Percent of revenue/ton based on the weighted value of each material per MRF ton based on either 2015 or 5 year average costs (NWRA 2022). For example: 2015 Aluminum Beverage: ($1,495/ton) (1.5% MRF ton composition)= 14.38% of $156 2021 MRF ton. By comparison 5 year average Aluminum Beverage: ($1,193/ton) (1.5% MRF ton composition) = 24.51% of $73 5 year average MRF ton.