The Situation The U.S. produces nearly 300 million tons of trash each year. So what happens to all that garbage? About half of it ends up in landfills, where it will sit for centuries, giving off harmful gases as it slowly degrades. A lot of trash also ends up in lakes and rivers, on beaches, and out in the ocean, where it can harm plants and animals. Recycling helps keep a lot of waste out of landfills and places where it can cause harm. Cardboard and paper typically go to a paper mill. There, they get made into new paper products—like cereal boxes and notebooks. Plastic, glass, and metal go to a separate facility where giant machines crush or melt them so that they can be used for new items—like soda bottles and tuna fish cans. Today, in most places in the U.S., you can leave your recyclables—your milk cartons and yogurt cups and mac ‘n’ cheese boxes—outside on the curb and the city will pick them up and recycle them for you. But 10 states also have what are known as “bottle bills.” In these states, everyone pays more—an extra 2 to 15 cents per bottle or can—for certain drinks. If you turn the empty bottles and cans in for recycling (by taking them to a redemption center or putting them into what’s known as a reverse vending machine), you get that money back. These bottle bills have sparked a debate: Should we get paid to recycle? Or should doing the right thing be reward enough? YES: Give people a reason to recycle! By Michelle Greene Bottle bills are a great idea, and more states should have them. Why? Research shows that these laws get more people to recycle—and getting more people to recycle is imperative. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 32 percent of all the waste produced in the U.S. is recycled or composted.* Thirty two percent! Just think how much less waste would end up in landfills if more people recycled. Bottle Bills Work As I said, bottle bills are effective. According to the Container Recycling Institute, 60 percent of beverage containers get recycled in the states with bottle bills. In the states that do not have bottle bills, recycling rates are only about 24 percent. Clearly, giving people money encourages them to recycle. And there’s another benefit to bottle bills: They cut down on litter. A 2019 study of trash along coastlines (where a lot of trash eventually ends up) found that in states without bottle bills, bottles and cans accounted for about 18 percent of all litter.** In states bottles and cans accounted for less than 9 percent of all litter. That’s a really big difference. In a Perfect World The fact is, there are many benefits to recycling beyond reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills. Recycling saves energy and reduces pollution. It even creates jobs. A 2016 EPA report found that recycling accounted for nearly 700,000 jobs! The more we recycle, the cleaner and better off our communities—and our planet—will be. Now, some people believe we shouldn’t need a reward for doing things that help the environment. And I agree. In a perfect world, we would all recycle simply because it’s the right thing to do. But we don’t live in a perfect world. So why not provide an extra incentive for people to recycle? What matters is that we all recycle as much as possible. The reason we do it is less important. Helping Communities Here’s something else to consider: Bottle bills help communities. For example, in Connecticut, people can donate bottles and cans to a group called “Cans for Kids.” The group returns the recyclables and donates most of the money it gets to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. So far, the group has donated more than $500,000. Helping others while also helping our environment seems like a win-win to me. * Environmental Protection Agency 2018 ** Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University NO: Helping our planet is the only reward we need. By Jack Burman Bottle bills are outdated and send the wrong message. That’s why I think we should get rid of them. Let me explain: The first bottle bills were passed in the 1970s and 1980s when the whole idea that everyone should recycle was pretty new. But now, most places have universal recycling programs: We simply place recyclables on the curb to be picked up by sanitation workers. With convenient programs like this, recycling has never been easier. Why lug a bag of bottles to a redemption center when you can put them outside your door? In 2010, Delaware did away with bottle bills for this exact reason. Waste of Money It’s true that states with bottle bills have higher recycling rates for bottles and cans, but those are not the only items that should be recycled. What about paper? Paper makes up about one-quarter of trash in the U.S. Besides, recycling costs money. Having bottle bills and universal recycling programs is a waste of money. It makes more sense to have one system that makes it easy to recycle everything at once. But the real issue with bottle bills isn’t cost or convenience. It’s that rewarding people for recycling sends the message that taking care of the environment is an option—when in fact, it’s an obligation. Earth is the only home we’ve got. It’s our responsibility to take care of it. The Real Problem The fact is, we have a garbage problem that we can’t recycle our way out of. What we really need to do is stop buying so much stuff that gets thrown out. Instead of plastic water bottles, we should choose reusable ones, for instance. Remember that slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”? Those words are listed in that order for a reason. Think of it this way: We get to live on a planet that has everything we need to survive. But only if we take care of it will we get to keep breathing its air, growing food in its soil, and drinking its water. Keeping Earth healthy should be the only reward we need.