Why MA Ballot Question 2 (Expanding Bottle Deposits) Was A Bad Idea

WhyI am an ardent recycler, but strongly believed that the question on the recent Massachusetts ballot to expand bottle deposits to cover non-carbonated beverages was a bad idea. The theory is that having people pay a small additional fee for each bottle purchased which is only returned when the bottle is brought to a redemption center will increase recycling behavior. Research on motivation, though, shows us the opposite.

A bottle deposit is an extrinsic motivator for recycling behavior. Recycle, and you get your nickel back.

What happens when someone decides they don’t need the nickel?

What happens when someone has an empty bottle in New Hampshire or California, and won’t get the nickel if they recycle there?

What happens when dragging all of the empty bottles back to a redemption center becomes a pain, and instead of thinking about the values of recycling, someone rationalizes that a few dollars isn’t worth the hassle?

Better to encourage identified regulation, so someone recycles a water bottle in support of their larger goal to protect the environment.

Better still to encourage integrated regulation, so the bottle gets recycled by someone who considers herself an environmentalist and would never dream of placing it in a trash bin instead of a recycling bin.

If the research on the undermining effect has taught us anything, it’s that amping up extrinsic incentives is a great way to extinguish long-term behavior change. If our goal is to encourage recycling of plastic beverage containers, expanding bottle deposits is the wrong way to go about it. Chances are, that’s not why MA voters rejected Question 2, but this psychologist is glad they did anyway.RecyclingMotivation

5 thoughts on “Why MA Ballot Question 2 (Expanding Bottle Deposits) Was A Bad Idea”

  1. I agree that, on the whole, bottle bills are not the motivator they perhaps were 30 years ago when they came into vogue. Recycling today is far more commonplace than it was in the early 1980s. It would be interesting to dig into what portion of that increase is related to extrinsic motivators like bottle deposits — there is, at minimum, a correlation between incentive systems and increased recycling. But I’m not willing, for good reason, to say that incentive systems led to a broad increase in recycling.

    My position is, in Mass., we have to “dance with the one that brung us” on this. Mass. and several other states have bottle bills that incent returning some containers and not others. Consequently, there’s a market — primary (the initial user takes action to return the container) or secondary (other people collect these containers and return them to earn the incentive) — for collecting and returning the incented containers that doesn’t exist for non-incented containers. A Coke bottle is much less likely to go unrecycled than an Evian bottle.

    Supporters of the bill — and I acknowledge that’s going to be a skewed perspective, but I can’t find objective data on it nor can I find anyone refuting it — point out 80 percent of incented containers are recycled; 23 percent of non-incented containers are. I suspect it’s difficult to get really solid info on that, but let’s give them each a 20 point margin of error against them; that’s still 60-43.

    In a municipality where an incentive system such as we have in Mass. exists, I think that system should include as much recyclable material as possible.

    Alternatively, perhaps the entire system ought to go away. With recycling rates for non-incented materials as high as they are, there’s a strong argument that a system focused only on beverage containers is outdated and aimed at only a narrow portion of the issue.

    To support eliminating the bottle deposit law, I’d set a pretty high bar: An equal emphasis on easy access to recycling alternatives must accompany a shift away from such an incentive program. The infrastructure doesn’t exist today to support moving the current recycling activities from bottle returns to other means.

    I’d much rather see advanced, single-stream, curbside recycling and plentiful (frequently emptied) municipal recycling containers getting our investments — but that wasn’t on the ballot and expanding recycling wasn’t proposed as an alternative to this ballot measure.

    In the absence of that alternative, I’d have preferred to see an expansion of the current system.

  2. Wow–I wish I had a “like” button for this comment. The realist versus the psychologist!

    This is a classic issue with social good behaviors that get incentivized. Incentives do often work to get people moving initially, and then sustaining the behavior over time requires repeated or even increased incentive amounts, and the behavior extinguishes when the incentive is removed. I would love to see, as you suggest, a system put into place that increases the ease of recycling so that we can avoid this cycle and actually make recycling a cultural norm instead of a behavior requiring ongoing reward.

  3. Great points, Amy and Andrew, on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and providing incentives for regulation. But I’d also like to point out the power of $$$ and advertising. In July/August of this year, the Yes votes (for recycling) were leading the No votes by about 30 percentage points. Why? I’d hypothesize because most people think that recycling is a responsible thing to do, and people are intrinsically motivated to do it.

    Then the American Beverage Association and large supermarket chains stepped in and put $8.8 million into advertising to persuade people that No, we don’t need additional recycling because 90% of communities in Massachusetts have curbside recycling . So that intrinsic motivation was removed. No need to implement an extra 5 cents charge on bottled water, sports drinks, and other similar beverages because 90% of people do it already. The problem is, they were lying! 90% of Massachusetts communities don’t have curbside recycling; 90% have “access to recycling centers” in their communities. Only somewhere between 60% and 65% of communities have curbside recycling. That’s a lot of extra bottles that don’t get recycled. The beverage and supermarket industries had their own intrinsic motivation to shoot this bill down, and that had to do with additional costs for supporting 5-cent bottle returns and recycling them. (BTW, the Yes vote campaign spent about $1.5 million in advertising.)

    Sometimes, the simple answer is, money provides the motivation.

    1. Thanks, Bob–I didn’t know all that history around the politics of recycling. Very interesting (and a little disheartening) to see how many groups have interests in something that you would think is just a social good. Also a good example of how stats can be very misleading.

      I agree that money is motivating–absolutely. I used to live in Michigan, where bottle deposits were $0.10, and I brought my cans back to the store when I lived there. Now in MA, where it’s $0.05 (and, to be fair, I live further from the store and no longer have a car), I just recycle them. I’m more worried about people who do it only in the short term for the money, but don’t develop any values or bigger explanation around why recycling is something they should do. Those are the people who will stop altogether if the nickel is no longer offered or if for some reason it stops being enough.

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