U.S. consumers need incentive, convenience, transparency to effectively recycle, environmental experts tell senators 

Americans need convenience and incentive in order to effectively engage in recycling practices, experts told senators during an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Thursday. 

“Ultimately, there are only two things that affect whether a system is successful: convenience, and incentive,” Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative President & CEO Jules Bailey said. 

Bailey was one of three recycling experts who served as witnesses for the committee’s “Examining Solutions to Address Beverage Container Waste” hearing. 

Oregon is one of ten states that have employed a statewide deposit return system, in which consumers pay an extra fee for recyclable materials that they are given back once the material is recycled.  

The witnesses argued that Oregon’s system serves as an example of one that employs both convenience and incentive, which helps its citizens to effectively recycle. 

“The combination of convenience and incentive in Oregon means nearly all beverage containers are collected with other beverage containers, helping protect food-grade materials from contamination, and returning them to their highest and best use, which is often a new bottle or can,” Bailey said. “Even if curbside invests in technology to improve the quality of recycling, without an incentive, these systems will not generate the volume necessary to meet the needs of American recycling infrastructure.” 

A national deposit return system could potentially increase the nation’s recycling rate of beverage containers by almost 50%, according to data from the Container Recycling Institute. 

“It [a national deposit return system] would boost the nation’s recycling rate of beverage containers from the current national rate of 34% to 80% and provide 8.5 million new tons of recyclables for the nation’s container manufacturers,” Container Recycling Institute president Susan V. Collins said. “This would improve the nation’s overall recycling rate for all materials by three percentage points.” 

Collins also said that a deposit return system would promote job creation. 

“According to estimates, a national DRS would add over 80,000 jobs, meaning that if the U.S. had a national deposit law with a redemption rate of 80%, it would support more than 100,000 jobs in the United States – 20,000 that already exist, and 80,000 new,” she said. 

Some lawmakers worry that incentivization, convenience, and other benefits such as job creation, may not be enough to sway all Americans because of a perceived lack of transparency in recycling.  

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) expressed concern about plastics recycling, saying, “it isn’t really happening,” and that American consumers and taxpayers “are the suckers in all of that because the recycling programs that propagate this mythology of plastics recycling are paid for by the taxpayers.” Whitehouse continued, calling recycling in America a “fraudulent scheme.”

The experts said that while this is a false narrative, it is unfortunately one that many Americans believe. 

“Something goes in your bin; it gets recycled at a 70% rate,” said Steve Alexander, president & CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers. “I don’t know where that narrative comes from, that if it goes in your bin, it’s not recycled. We know. We’ve been doing studies; we’ve been doing this for 35 years.” 

Bailey added that the deposit return system can help Americans who are disillusioned with recycling. 

“The good news is that when a beverage container is redeemed through a deposit return system, it is recycled,” he said. “It is recycled, and it is recycled to its highest and best use. In Oregon, we get back nearly 90% of all bottles and cans sold in the state and 100% of those bottles that are plastic go to a wash and flake [recycling] facility in St. Helens, Oregon.” 

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