Although curbside pickup accounts for nearly all U.S. recycling, over half of households participate. At a time when there appears to be room for expansion, this rate of urban recycling is becoming less viable. 

Changes in Chinese policies, which previously led the country to purchase a large amount of U.S. recycled materials, have affected the marketplace for salvaged products and left lawmakers and recyclers alike looking for new alternatives. To reduce the amount of waste in landfills, lawmakers should take a page from economics by creating recycling incentives.

Despite overwhelming consumer support of recycling — with 95 percent of individuals believing it helps the environment — trust in the system is lower, with about one in four lacking confidence that what they put in the bin ends up getting recycled. This distrust likely contributes to the low recycling rate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just 32.1 percent of eligible materials were recycled as of 2018.

The vast majority of these materials must have been collected via curbside recycling, according to the 2020 State of Curbside Recycling report, which states that curbside collection gathers about 32 percent of U.S. recyclable materials.

Of the materials that get recycled, 66 percent are paper products. Almost 46 million tons of paper material were recycled in 2018, and only about 17 million tons ended up in landfills. However, other materials — specifically metals and plastics — had a higher likelihood of ending up in landfills than they did of being recycled.

According to the EPA, more plastic ended up in a landfill than any other commonly recycled material, almost 27 million tons.

While decreasing markets for recyclable materials have begun to make curbside collection less profitable for municipalities. Legislation referred to as deposit return systems, also known as bottle bills, could help collect more of one item with comparatively low rates of recycling — beverage containers — while providing a case study on how money matters.

Legislatures in 10 states and Guam have passed bottle bills and have implemented deposit return systems. These bills place a small fee on certain beverage containers, usually between five and 10 cents, which consumers pay at the time of purchase. The fee is then refunded once the consumer returns the container for recycling. Specifics of the fee amount, which containers are included and who receives the unclaimed fees vary by state, but the defining characteristic of the legislation is that the fee works as a financial incentive to increase recycling.

Bottle bills offer a useful counterpart to curbside recycling programs, with their demonstrated ability to increase the recycling of beverage containers. States with deposit return programs have significantly higher rates of recycling across beverage containers. In 2018, states with deposits had recycling rates for aluminum cans, plastic bottles and glass bottles at 77 percent, 62 percent and 64 percent, respectively. Comparatively, these rates were only 41 percent, 13 percent and 12 percent for non-deposit states.

Implementing deposit programs does increase the total cost of recycling, but states with the program have more than doubled rates of recycling per capita, thus resulting in greater cost efficiency. States with dual programs (both curbside and deposit return systems) recycled “490 containers per capita per year, at a cost of 1.53 cent/unit, vs. 191 containers per capita per year at 1.25 cent/unit in 40 non-deposit states.” 

Additionally, because consumers pay the upfront cost of the deposit and are then refunded, municipalities frequently recognize cost savings from implementing the program.

The effect on state and local government can vary. The effect on state and local governments may vary, depending on how the programs are designed. In some cases, these programs can be managed and paid for by private sector entities, like beverage distributors. These helps ensure state governments don’t shoulder any of the cost burden, but instead, provide oversight to make sure the system functions properly and efficiently.

Bottle bills and curbside recycling target different materials, with curbside being primarily composed of paper products. Deposit return programs have been shown to increase recycling rates, based on results from the 10 states that have enacted bottle bills. While not a complete substitute for curbside, lawmakers should focus on expanding the deposit model to increase recycling rates. Taking lessons from bottle bills shows that recycling incentives matter.