MassRecycle: Helping you Understand the Massachusetts Bottle Bill

Executive Summary
History of the Massachusetts Bottle Bill

Executive Summary

The 1983 Massachusetts Bottle Bill was one of the first container deposit systems in the nation.  It was enacted at a time of increased awareness of environmental pollution and roadside litter.  Federal and state measures were taken in the 1970’s and 1980’s to prohibit open burning, close open dumps, and set standards for sanitary landfills.  A move away from refillable containers, expanded use of disposable packaging, and standards for environmentally sound solid waste disposal led to a solid waste capacity crisis.  To ameliorate this crisis, waste diversion efforts were put into effect to direct recyclable materials away from the waste stream.  Massachusetts conducted a pilot study in 1976 that demonstrated the feasibility of residential curbside recycling.  By 1989 Massachusetts was operating twenty curbside recycling programs.  The Bottle Bill was diverting deposit containers from the waste stream, and coincided with reduced roadside litter.  Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) were established to manage the materials stream after a portion of aluminum, glass, and plastic containers were captured through redemption. The initial $0.05 deposit has not been increased since 1983 and does not compare to more successful deposit systems in the nation that offer $0.10-$0.15.  Redemption rates in Massachusetts have fallen from 81% in 1989-1997, to 50% in 2019.

Efforts to update the Massachusetts Bottle Bill are hotly debated.  Those who support expansion emphasize the effects on roadside litter, generation of clean and sorted materials for downstream processes, reduced mining and manufacturing of virgin materials, potential savings for municipalities resulting from reduced tonnage, the container deposit economy including employment by this system, and the cash flow related to bottle deposits.  Opponents of an expanded Bottle Bill voice concern for lost revenue for MRFs, diversion of material away from the businesses who invested in this industry, cost of additional redemption infrastructure,  additional consumer cost of beverages, and consequent costs for municipalities.  The discrepancy between predictions of costs versus savings for municipalities may depend on an individual municipality’s strategy for recycling collection and removal.   Additionally, there exists technology that may enable MRFs to collect deposits on containers in their waste stream, though it is only applicable to containers that have not been crushed and it requires laborious hand-sorting.  While the impact on municipalities, and the MRFs upon which Massachusetts relies, is debated, it has been demonstrated that container deposit systems incentivize recycling.


History of the Bottle Deposit System in Massachusetts: Litter and Solid Waste Capacity

The Massachusetts Bottle Bill is a Deposit Return System (DRS) that places a small deposit on a container that is refunded upon return by the consumer.  DRS strategies are currently utilized in over 40 countries or regions, including 10 US states and 8 Canadian Provinces [1].  These systems have been shown to incentivize recycling, result in clean materials for downstream processes, and reduce litter [2-8].  The last claim is the most difficult to track, and has been the most hotly debated, even before the inception of DRS legislation [8, 9].  While recycling is now practiced in every  Massachusetts municipality, the DRS was enacted at a time when the state had little recycling infrastructure and redemption was one of the only methods of collecting bottles and cans.

The Massachusetts Beverage Container Recovery Law of 1981, implemented in 1983, was one of the first of its kind in the nation and came on the heels of federal and state regulations regarding the environmental impact of solid waste (10,11].  The national Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 was passed to address concerns about pollution, the financial burden of waste disposal, loss of economic product through waste, and diminishing domestic solid waste capacity [12].  In 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act set national goals for waste reduction and parameters for environmentally sound disposal [13].  The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set goals to identify open dumps and sanitary landfills within the coming year.  The addition of Subtitle D, in 1980, set criteria for municipal solid waste landfills and prohibited the open dumping of solid waste.

In Massachusetts, open burning of solid waste was commonplace until the Massachusetts Air Pollution Control Regulations of 1970. In 1971, state landfill regulations defined sanitary landfills and dumps, forcing dumps to restructure or close. Sanitary landfills at this time were not what we consider acceptable today and were not lined [14].  The nation’s post-war population boom, increased personal wealth, trends toward disposable packaging, and the introduction of plastics had converged to create a solid waste crisis [summarized in 5, 12].   In 1960, 95% of soft drinks and 50% beer in the US were packaged in refillable bottles.  In stark contrast, by 1975 only 33% of soft drinks and 21% of beer containers were returnable. Accompanying this shift away from refillable containers was an increase in roadside litter, with 1975 seeing 4 billion beverage containers discarded along roadways (summarized in [8]).  It should be noted that “recyclable materials” during the 1970’s were paper, glass, corrugated cardboard, and metal cans. Plastics were considered a novel recyclable material well into the late 1980’s [15].

The 1983 Massachusetts Bottle Bill legislation came at a time when municipal recycling programs were in their infancy.  In 1975, Massachusetts was awarded two grants from the EPA to pursue pilot residential recycling programs in Marblehead and Somerville  [16, 17].  The resulting three-year study demonstrated that residential curbside recycling was economically and logistically feasible.  The Massachusetts Bureau of Solid Waste Disposal 1986 report stated that Massachusetts “…has been engaging in the initiation of a statewide recycling program. The program is expected to feature curbside collection of mixed recyclables, and processing at ‘Material Recovery Facilities’ (MRFs).” [18].  By 1989 Massachusetts was planning four state-owned MRFs, and operating twenty curbside recycling programs, nine combustion facilities, and 194 active landfills.  The Bottle Bill was diverting deposit containers from the waste stream and coincided with reduced roadside litter.  MRFs were established to manage the materials stream after a portion of aluminum, glass, and plastic containers were captured through DRS.  

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 [19].  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*  [20].  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 [2].  The same NWRA study modeled six different redemption scenarios that projected a fixed cost/ton increase from $8.50 – $15.20, depending on scenario [20].  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 [28].  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 [21].  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 [23].  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 [5].  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 [8]).   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.

Works Cited

  1. Zhou, G., et al., A systematic review of the deposit-refund system for beverage packaging: Operating mode, key parameter and development trend. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2020. 251.
  2. TOMRA, Rewarding Recycling: Learnings from the World’s Highest-Performing Deposit Return Systems. 2021.
  3. Law, K.L., et al., The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean. Science Advances, 2020. 6.
  4. Linderhof, V., et al., Effectiveness of deposit-refund systems for household waste in the Netherlands: Applying a partial equilibrium model. Journal of Environmental Management, 2019. 232: p. 842-850.
  5. Schuyler, Q., et al., Economic incentives reduce plastic inputs to the ocean. Marine Policy, 2018. 96: p. 250-255.
  6. Geyer, R., J.R. Jambeck, and K.L. Law, Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 2017. 3(7).
  7. Walls, M., Deposit-Refund Systems in Practice and Theory. 2011.
  8. Moore, W.K. and D.L. Scott, Beverage Container Deposit Laws: A Survey of the Issues and Results. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 1983. 17(1): p. 57-80.
  9. King, E.J., Response to House Bill 7320. 1981.
  10. An Act To Provide Economic Incentives For Consumers To Return Used Beverage Containers And To Encourage The Conservation Of Materials And Energy Through The Recycling And Reuse Thereof, H.R. 5180 (1981).
  11. 15 MGL § 321-327.
  12. EPA, Initiating a National Effort to Improve Solid Waste Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1971.
  13. 42 USC  § 6901
  14. MassDEP, The Massachusetts Solid Waste master Plan: “Toward a System of Integrated Solid Waste Management”, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. 1989.
  15. Brewer, G., Plastics recycling Action Plan for Massachusetts – Part 1. Journal of Environmental Systems, 1988. 18(3): p. 213-264.
  16. EPA, Awards Register Grants Assistance Programs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1975.
  17. EPA, Source Separation: the community awareness program in Somerville and Marblehead, Massachusetts, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1976.
  18. MBSWD, Waste Composition Studies, Massachusetts Bureau of Solid Waste Disposal. 1986.
  19. MassDEP, Materials Recovery Facilities in Massachusetts, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. 2019.
  20. NWRA, Economic Impacts of Beverage Container Deposits on Municipal Recycling Processing Costs, National Waste and Recycling Association. 2022.
  21. Container Recycling Institute, Massachusetts Container Deposit Return System: 2016 Employment and Economic Impacts in the Commonwealth. 2017.
  22. Container Recycling Institute, Massachusetts Container Deposit Return System April 2018 Addendum. 2018.
  23. Register, K., Littered Bottles and Cans: Higher in Virginia Than in States with Bottle Bills, F. Clean Virginia Waterways. Longwood University, VA. 2020.
  24. Reiter, S.M. and W. Samuel, Littering as a Function of Prior Litter and the Presence or Absence of Prohibitive Sign. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1980. 10(1): p. 45-55.
  25. Krauss, R.M., J.L. Freedman, and M. Whitcup, Field and Laboratory Studies of Littering. Social Psychology, 1978. 14: p. 109-122.
  26. Finnie, W.C., Field Experiments in Litter Control. Environment and Behavior, 1973. 5(2): p. 123-144.
  27. MassDEP, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bottle Bill Redemption Fee Study, M.D.o.E. Protection, Editor. 1999.
  28. Bottle Bill Resource Guide – Massachusetts. Retrieved from:
  29. MassDEP. Find a Bottle & Can Redemption Center. Retrieved from:
  30. MASSPIRG, Better Bottle Bill – H3289/S2149. 2022.
  31. Budway, R. and L. Wilk In Our Opinion: The right design for container deposits. 2020.
  32. Štefanić, N. and A. Pilipovic, Impact of Glass Cullet on the Consumption of Energy and Environment in the Production of Glass Packaging Material. Recent Researches in Chemistry, Biology, Environment and Culture, 2011.
  33. The Fate of unredeemed or Abandoned Deposits. Retrieved from:

  1. 24 MRS § 2146.