It has been more than a decade since people began to realize that consumer recycling programs often consume more resources than they save. (Note the updates in the comments to that post.)
While recently passing through New York I bought a $3 case of bottled water and was surprised to see an additional $2 “container deposit fee” added to my bill. Sure enough: New York is one of ten states that still collect bottle deposits. Even as manufacturers have managed to shrink the plastic content of a half-liter bottle to less than 10 grams, New York charges a 5-cent-per-bottle “deposit” on each bottle in that case.
Advocates of “Bottle Bills” suggest that the deposit encourages responsible consumption of containers, recycling, and a reduction in litter. They skim over the fact that consumers only get the “deposit” back if they transport their empty bottles to a collection center and feed them one-by-one into a redemption machine. This consumer-end collection mechanism, even when utilized, is almost certainly a net energy loser.
What’s the real-world effect of bottle deposits in this era of curbside recyclable collection? Towns have to pass additional laws to prevent hobos from tearing through curbside trash trying to pick out containers with deposits. States get to feed the increasingly uncollected deposits into their general funds. So almost everyone is hoping that the deposits are not collected by consumers!
Container deposits are mostly a curious tax that reminds us that legislation is not the best way to enact good intentions.