Which should come first – the carrot or the stick? Bottle bills give some insights.

Which should come first – the carrot or the stick? Bottle bills give some insights.

The first of two articles examining the effectiveness of rewarding vs. taking away. The long-discussed, recently proposed Massachusetts bottle bill expansion is an opportunity to look at the results of a reward system for sustainable behaviors.

A co-worker who’s spent time with family on the Massachusetts coast didn’t see why the state wanted to expand its “bottle bill,” a law setting up the deposit system you see bottles and cans labeled for: DE 5¢, MI 10¢, and so on. The roads are still lined with beer bottles, he told me.

My response: States still have that?

After all, we’ve got curbside pickup and single-stream recycling. I’d rather recycle for free than save containers and tote them back to the store for 5 cents each. (Also my philosophy for coupons – they’re an awfully wimpy carrot.)

It seems some Massachusetts residents are confused about whether bottle deposits are in fact a carrot. The comments following a story on Boston’s local NPR website illustrate the back and forth between ardent supporters (It works so well! And you get money back!) and ardent opponents (It’s a tax in disguise! And super inconvenient!).

The opponents seem to be recyclers.  And they seem to see the deposit as a stick. The thought behind their comments seems to be: So why would you go through the hassle of returning your bottles to get small change returned here and there? And yet you’re losing money if you don’t claim your deposit, and unclaimed deposits go to the state for who knows what inefficient initiatives … so you better go claim your nickels.

Only 10 states currently have bottle bills, but several more have tried to instate them in recent years, including Texas, Tennessee and Florida. Why?

The benefits of container deposit systems

Well, not everyone has access to curbside recycling, and bottle bills are particularly helpful (although my co-worker’s experience doesn’t back this up) in public places, where litter is voluminous and recycling bins may not be present.

A 2009 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection backs up that assertion. The market share for containers covered under the bottle bill was 42 percent higher than for non-deposit containers; during cleanups, the study recorded that non-deposit containers, on average, outnumbered deposit containers by 26 percent.

On the other hand, in Tennessee, a state without a bottle bill, a not-as-scientific cleanup study from 2005–2006 found about 43 percent more deposit-labeled containers in the litter than non-deposit containers (a 5 to 2 ratio).

Simply comparing the two studies ignores a lot of factors, but it does point to good results from bottle bills – the qualified bottles make up a greater percentage of litter where there is no deposit system.

The quality of recycled materials is also higher in states with bottle bills. Intact bottles make it back to the store, and there’s much less contamination of materials with non-recyclables. We often forget that simply putting waste in a recycling bin doesn’t mean it will be reused. Each material has to meet certain criteria to actually be repurposed.

According to a study by the Container Recycling Institute, only 40 percent of collected glass, on average, is remade into containers and fiberglass.

But 98 percent of color-sorted glass collected in a deposit system is recycled.

The deposit system also yields higher rates of usable plastics.

So the wimpy carrot must not be so wimpy after all. In Massachusetts’ case, it’s a win for recycling if people take advantage of the deposit, and a win for the state’s environmental programs if they don’t via funding from unclaimed deposits.

More enticing varieties of carrot

But does a bona fide carrot work better? And what would that look like? Even rebates for energy efficiency improvements, for instance, work in a way similar to the bottle bill.

Oftentimes, consumers buy the appliance, etc., and then have to redeem the rebate. It can be an annoyance. And they’re not making money, only getting back a small portion of what they paid. We know many consumers don’t even redeem rebates, although they claim that incentives affect their purchase choices.

So, while deposits and rebates may create results, they could have even more impact if program developers keep a few hints in mind:

  • Implement rebates and other relevant incentives at the point of sale when possible.
  • Know what the threshold is for making an action “worth it.” A nickel might not be worth a grocery store trip for people who are not “walking the roads” for profit, and a $50 rebate for a large appliance is often not enough to encourage jumping through the mail-in rebate hoop for (most often) upscale buyers.
  • If you want to take the reward route, make it a true reward. Don’t hand out a wimpy carrot that creates the response, “It’s just not worth the effort.”

Finally, a consumer perception that favors these programs, regardless of perceived value, is personal responsibility. In this year’s Eco Pulse™, 55 percent of respondents said they feel personally responsible to change their daily habits and purchase practices to positively impact the environment. Proponents of bottle bills argue that deposit systems switch responsibility for product end of life and environmental quality from taxpayers and governments to consumers, retailers and beverage manufacturers.

A stick keeps responsibility out of consumers’ hands. A carrot will appeal to the very slight majority of consumers who are attuned to their personal responsibility. Know your target audience’s preference for taking or disowning responsibility, and when appropriate, tout the opportunity a deposit, rebate or other incentive gives them to take responsibility for the products they use and their daily habits to help assuage complaints about costs and the “I’d rather do this for free” mindset.


Posted on

August 6, 2013

About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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