Recycling laws work

People tend to fall into two categories when it comes to disposing of plastic water bottles: They are either diligent recyclers, or they don't recycle at all. A large national study led by W. Kip Viscusi, University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics and Management, has found that effective recycling laws convert reluctant recyclers to committed recyclers.

People who don't recycle at all as well as people from lower income groups are more likely to start recycling plastic water bottles when laws and other incentives are put in place, according to Professor Viscusi, the study's lead author.

Viscusi and his team examined who is more likely to recycle and whether recycling laws and bottle return programs boost recycling efforts. The waste associated with plastic water bottles has become a prominent national issue, with more than two million tons of bottles ending up in landfills every year.

The researchers sampled 2,550 bottled water users in the first study to do so on a national level. Respondents reported recycling an average of six out of every 10 plastic water bottles. Bottled water drinkers tend to be affluent, disproportionately female and middle-aged. They spend an average of $12 a month on bottled water.

Nearly 30 percent of those surveyed reported they did not recycle plastic water bottles at all, while around 40 percent said they recycled every water bottle they use.

The researchers concluded that it is not good enough for states to set or suggest recycling goals; laws requiring recycling and incentives for recycling, such as deposit returns, are more effective in converting non-recyclers into committed recyclers. The average number of bottles out of 10 recycled rises from 4.38 in states with no law mandating recycling and no water bottle deposit law to 6.1 if the state has an effective recycling law and to 8.34 if the state also has a water bottle deposit law. Strong recycling laws and water bottle deposits are effective in transforming people from non-recyclers to diligent recyclers.

"Bottle deposits work because they provide a financial reward for recycling," Viscusi said. "Having a recycling law in the state only makes a difference if it promotes recycling by fostering curbside pickup or providing for convenient recycling centers. Mandatory recycling is also effective, but simply declaring that the state has a goal doesn't work. Effective recycling laws must go beyond symbolic gestures."

Viscusi's coauthors were Joel Huber and Jason Bell of Duke University and Caroline Cecot of Vanderbilt Law School. The research was supported by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"What was really surprising is that recycling laws and bottle deposits have a dramatic impact as soon as they are effected. A person who formerly recycled zero to two bottles out of 10 will jump to recycling 8 to 10 bottles out of 10 when these policies take effect," Viscusi said.

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