How Do State Recycling and Deposit Laws Impact Recycling Rates?

Most U.S. states have enacted laws to promote recycling, but they vary in terms of their policy approach and requirements for municipalities. Some states have also enacted laws imposing deposit policies for items like glass, plastic, and aluminum beverage containers. A new study finds that states with more rigorous laws see increased rates of household recycling and those with deposit policies exhibit higher recycling rates for deposit-eligible items.

The Hierarchy and Performance of State Recycling and Deposit Laws,” co-authored by Caroline Cecot (JD/PHD ‘14) of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason and W. Kip Viscusi of Vanderbilt Law School, establishes categories of stringency for state recycling laws and leverages national recycling data to measure their impact.

How do recycling laws differ from state to state?

The study categorizes states according to a 4-tier hierarchy, based on policies and laws in place from 2005-2014: those that make recycling mandatory, those that require the provision of recycling opportunities, those that require the development of a recycling plan, and those that specify a recycling goal.

Six states fall into the “goal” tier – they have laws specifying recycling goals, but don’t offer concrete mechanisms to assist in achieving them.

Fifteen states have recycling laws that fall into the “plan” tier – municipalities are required to develop a plan for meeting goals – making it the most common in the U.S. Under this form, municipalities need to evaluate and plan for recycling programs to meet specified goals, with a couple of exceptions.

The “opportunity” tier requires municipalities to provide recycling opportunities for households. Eight states fall into this category, and all but one also specify recycling goals.

The “mandatory” tier of laws requires recycling along with the opportunity; six states and D.C. have such laws, and all but 2 specify specific goals.

The authors also identified 15 states without any broadly based recycling laws, although some of those states had enacted deposit policies, and certain municipalities within those states have laws on the books.

Measuring the Impact of Recycling Laws

Using a nationally representative web-based survey of over 170,000 US households from 2005-2014, the authors were able to measure recycling behavior across the country, in terms of types of materials recycled. They found that the household recycling rates do follow the tiers according to stringency. Households in the strictest “mandatory” tier recycled 3.2 materials (out of a possible 4), while those in the loosest “goal” tier recycled 1.9 materials.

States with no recycling laws recycled 2.3 materials, exceeding the “goal” tier but no others. “This weak performance of goal laws may reflect the extent to which announcing a recycling goal without any practical steps for implementation is not an effective mechanism for increasing recycling,” the authors write.

The study also found a steady upward trend in recycling rates from 2005-2014 across all tiers. Interestingly, the lower stringency tiers posted the highest rates of growth, although overall participation rates grew along with stringency.  “There may be some ceiling effects that limit the opportunities for additional increases in recycling once rates become high,” the authors explain.

So how do states with more rigorous laws achieve higher rates of recycling? The study found that 76% of households living in “mandatory” tier states reported using curbside recycling; those rates drop to 54% in “opportunity” states, 41% in “plan” states, and 11% in “goal” states. Ease of recycling likely plays a large part in achieving higher rates.

Do Deposit Laws Work?

Ten states currently have deposit laws for beverage containers, and the coverage varies by state, as do the stringency of their other recycling laws.

The study found that recycling rates for glass, plastic, and cans were all higher in states with deposits than those without them. It even found similar results for paper, which is not a traditional target of deposit schemes.

The authors surmise that the financial incentive baked into deposit laws may motivate households to recycle items that would otherwise be regarded as a hassle. “Since glass containers are heavier than plastic and cans, they may require more effort to recycle. The deposit inducement may consequently assist in motivating that effort and be more consequential for products that impose greater effort costs to recycle,” they write.

They also note a potential spillover effect. “The 8% boost to paper recycling may reflect a positive spillover effect that deposits have in encouraging people to engage in recycling more generally. Such an increase could occur if the presence of deposit policies led households to return the covered items to a recycling center where it was also possible to recycle paper,” they write. “Another possible explanation might be that establishing the norm that bottles and cans covered by deposits should be recycled also may lead households to believe that they should recycle paper as well.”

A Broader Perspective on Recycling Policy

While the study demonstrates the degrees to which particular types of recycling laws impact household behavior, the authors do address the ongoing question of “whether recycling passes a broader economic test in terms of the benefits outweighing the costs.” Noting the potential variance in benefits from state to state and method by method, they encourage policymakers to think broadly about recycling policies before changing them.

“Recycling behavior for households tends to be fairly stable from year to year,” the authors write. “Temporary scaling back of recycling policies may disrupt this continuity in recycling habits, creating challenges in terms of regaining the recycling activity.”

The authors conclude with a reminder about the impact of recycling on support for pro-environmental policies. “If engaging people in perceived pro-environmental household recycling efforts makes them more inclined to support environmental protection generally, incentivizing such efforts could pay dividends that go beyond the financial merits of recycled materials,” they write.

The Hierarchy and Performance of State Recycling and Deposit Laws” was published in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law.