Environment would benefit from Illinois bottle bill

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Brionna Belcher

If there’s one thing the bottle bill proves, it’s that economic incentives are the key to improving the environment. 

By Parker Otto, Columnist

When I went to Michigan with some buddies on spring break, I was amazed to discover that so many people in the state care about recycling. During the break, my friends and I filled several bags with plastic bottles, aluminum cans and glass bottles and turned them in for money. Upon looking further into Michigan’s recycling legislation, I believe that similar laws should exist immediately in Illinois. 

WHAT ARE BEVERAGE CONTAINER DEPOSIT LAWS?

Beverage Container Deposit Laws, commonly called “bottle bills,” are simple to figure out.

“The basic idea is to have an incentive to pay people to recycle,” said Colin Kuehl, a professor of Environmental Politics at NIU’s Department of Political Science. “When you buy soda, you pay a deposit and then you get it back when you recycle.” 

So, if you bought a six-pack of beer in Michigan, you would be charged 60 cents. However, if you returned the bottles to the store you purchased them from, you get that 60 cents back. 

Currently, 10 states and the territory of Guam all have bottle bills with varying prices per container, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. States also have varying methods for what to do with deposits that aren’t returned to the consumer. Some states, like Connecticut and Maine, keep the money for the state while others, like Vermont and Oregon, give the funds to the distributors and bottlers. 

Michigan and Guam stand out because they pledge money to environmental organizations. 75% of Michigan’s unclaimed deposits go to state environmental programs while 25% go to retailers. Guam’s unclaimed deposits go to the EPA. 

DOES IT WORK?

However, the question is, do these laws work? To put it bluntly, yes. 

These bills have done a tremendous job of reducing litter. Studies have found that beverage litter reductions are between 70 and 84% and total litter has been reduced by 34 and 47%, according to the Container Recycling Institute

In terms of public participation, the response has also been positive. In Michigan, which passed its bottle bill in 1976, the amount of deposits refunded to consumers has been consistently above 85%, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. In 2019, 88.7% of deposits were refunded. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic no less, 73% were refunded. 

Instead of having to go to a recycling center to drop off cans and bottles, all you have to do is go to the store. A recycling center might be out of your way, but everyone needs groceries. 

“We want recycling to be easier and economically efficient, not a burden,” Kuehl said.

These kinds of laws would be excellent in Illinois because they would provide enough locations to make it feasible and easy. It would also help curtail wasting resources that would end up in a landfill.

Only 39.6% of glass beer and soft drink bottles were recycled, 39.8% of glass wine and liquor bottles and 50.4% of aluminum beer and soft drink cans, according to the EPA. These numbers are overwhelmingly more positive in states with bottle bills. 

“It acknowledges that we can’t just rely on individuals to be pro-environment,” Kuehl said. “There need to be economic incentives. To make a substantial choice, these sorts of bills would be helpful. The amount of plastic use has been skyrocketing. During the pandemic, it went up more.”

WHY ISN’T THERE A BOTTLE BILL IN ILLINOIS?

With states like California and New York having bottle bills, there ought to be one in Illinois. 

There have been attempts to push one through the General Assembly, most recently in 2019. 

HB2651 bears many strong resemblances to Michigan’s bottle bill which would give 75% of unclaimed deposits, valued at five cents per container, going to environmental and conservation programs. The remaining 25% would go to distributors. 

However, after being referred to the Rules Committee on June 23, 2020, the bill was adjourned session sine die on Jan. 13, 2021, meaning that it was adjourned without setting a day to reconvene. 

Kuehl believes the bill, along with similar bills in other states, not going anywhere was due to lobbying. 

“Plastic and beverage companies really oppose these laws because it puts pressure on them to recycle. It also raises the price for the consumer but you get it back.” 

As a resident of Oregon and California, Kuehl was surprised, upon moving to Illinois five years ago, that there was no bottle bill in the state. He believes that a bill similar to Michigan’s would work in Illinois, especially to reduce the amount of litter in the state and prevent plastics from entering animals and subsequently us. 

“Plastic is everywhere,” Kuehl said. “We have microplastics in us right now.”

The average person eats five grams of microplastic every week, according to a study by the World Wide Fund. That’s the same amount of plastic as a credit card.

However, recycling is just one small aspect of environmentalism with global warming being the primary focus of environmentalists. If there’s one thing the bottle bill proves, it’s that economic incentives are the key to improving the environment.