I recall the time I spent in China as the hottest and stuffiest days of my life. I was there for a summer study abroad experience, as well as the chance to visit with relatives that I had not seen since I was five years old. At every step of my travels, in the dusty background were the old and the poor. My companions and I would give our leftovers to the man squatting outside of the restaurant. When at the markets, a “good deal” was often difficult to come by because, although my face looks Chinese, everyone could tell I was American and gave me the “foreigner’s price,” resulting in a double emotional stab of sympathy and feeling cheated. Often, on the street corners a tired unkempt old woman would approach me. But unlike all my previous experiences, she wasn’t looking for money; she wanted the water bottle in my hand.
In China, you can buy a bottle of water on nearly every street corner, and sometimes there are just as many people there selling them as collecting them. Many of the less fortunate in the United States parallel those in China by learning to adapt and take advantage of redeemable container policies that allow them to make some daily cash. The biggest difference in container redemption policy between the two countries is that the United States does not have a national law regarding beverage containers that may be redeemed for their deposit. The deposit is a small fraction of the price that was paid on the product bought by the consumer. It may be refunded when containers are returned at a collection center, such as a local supermarket. More specifically, only 11 states, which is about one fifth of the country, have such policies.
In New York State, the Returnable Container Act, also known as the Bottle Bill, states that containers used for carbonated beverages may be redeemed for a cash refund of 5 cents. Emphasis was placed on carbonated beverages because, at the time this bill was passed, most beverages being sold fit into two categories: soda and beer. The lawmakers did not anticipate the market widening so much to include water, juices, and the ever-increasing number of other drinks being sold by the bottle. This has severely limited the potential of the recycling program.
Though the average redemption rate is 73.6%, it only represents an increased rate of recycling of the specific types of beverage containers included in the bill. There are still many more plastic and glass bottles going to the landfills, perhaps because there is no incentive to collect and return the bottles of beverages that are not included in the deposit system. These bottles could take anywhere from 450 to 1000 years to degrade. In contrast, Michigan’s redemption rate is 95%, which could be attributed to the deposit that is a full 100% more than New York’s at 10 cents per container.
One cold Saturday morning in January of this year, I came across a family with several shopping carts full of recyclables while walking through Astoria, Queens. It was a family event, the parents in charge, while the children patiently waited with the carts. Bottle collectors are not a rare sight in New York City. You often see them digging through trash bags, and even recycling bags, to pick out bottles redeemable for the 5 cents, which may add up to a nice hot meal or bed for the night.
There has been an ongoing movement in New York State to pass the Bigger Better Bottle Bill, which is an update of the original 1982 bill. It would finally allow redemption of deposits on many other types of beverages, and could include an increase in the deposit to 10 cents per container. The impact of this bill on families such as the one I came across in Astoria is still largely unpredictable, partly because the increase in income may still be too marginal to make a difference and partly because it is debatable whether infrastructure is capable of processing the larger volumes. However, the increased incentive to redeem deposits could potentially create opportunities for collection services or community empowering organization to develop. Money raised from unredeemed deposits could go towards social programs. Increased rate of recycling could close the resource cycle and make production of new products more sustainable.
These environmental benefits and the social benefits will outweigh any costs or negative effects. Beverage container collecting and collectors have a small role today, but there is incredible potential for expansion. I may never see that old Chinese woman ever again, but she has left an indelible impression in my mind that I cannot shake. I cannot say I felt the same pang of her sorrows, but I cannot help reframing my perspective on the world. My hope is that our societies will take all possible steps to create opportunities that could lessen the burden of poverty for individuals like her and for motivated families such as that one in Astoria, as well as make our stay on Earth a little more environmentally responsible.
Passing the Bigger Better Bottle Bill, or some form of it, is the logical next step for New York State because it incentivizes individuals and communities to take initiative in an important process. In the words of our current President Barack Obama,
A good compromise, a good piece of legislation, is like a good sentence; or a good piece of music. Everybody can recognize it. They say, ‘Huh. It works. It makes sense.’