Banner: Exploring Producer Responsibility
last modified: March 22, 2019
Wisconsin Campaign Development
Briefing Paper

The GrassRoots Recycling Network starts 2003 with new resources to explore the possibility of state initiatives that embrace the concepts of producer responsibility for beverage container waste. Our campaign aims to enact effective statewide legislation where producers are financially responsible for recovering, for re-use or recycling, 80 percent or more of the beverage containers sold in Wisconsin.

After developing a policy to accomplish that objective, we will craft and execute a grassroots campaign to build support for state legislation embracing the policy. Like other producer responsibility campaigns, we anticipate broad support – environmentalists, students, local governments, and more.

The first step toward enacting producer responsibility legislation in Wisconsin is to develop an effective policy that will accomplish that objective. The stages of policy development include scoping interviews with key solid waste professionals across the state and a statewide multi-stakeholder roundtable discussion designed to identify the key elements of an effective policy premised on producer responsibility.

The purpose of this briefing paper is to examine key questions and concerns identified through the scoping meetings, thereby providing contextual information that will enable a fruitful policy discussion at the roundtable event. Specifically, this report examines the current beverage container recovery performance in Wisconsin, the environmental benefits of beverage producer responsibility systems, and the potential economic impacts of producer responsibility legislation on existing curbside programs in Wisconsin.

Campaign Context

The recycling of aluminum, glass, and plastic bottles and cans has far-reaching environmental benefits, including decreased greenhouse gas emissions, oil conservation, landfill space preservation, and litter prevention. However, despite the environmental benefits of recycling beverage containers, billions of bottles and cans are wasted every year. In 1999, 114 billion aluminum, glass, and plastic bottles and cans were wasted nationwide.

A 2002 report released by Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling, or the BEAR report, provided vital new information and rekindled interest in improved beverage container recycling. BEAR, a multi-stakeholder group including recycling businesses, environmental groups, plastics manufacturers, and Coca-Cola found that deposit systems - which hold producers and consumers, instead of taxpayers, responsible for beverage container waste - achieve the highest levels of recovery. In states where beverage producers are responsible for the container waste their products create, 71.6 percent of the bottles and cans are recovered, as opposed to only 27.9 percent in states where producers aren’t. These findings have revitalized efforts to enact beverage container legislation in new states and explore new types of producer responsibility policies.

At a time of budget deficit and declining tax revenue in Wisconsin, producer responsibility is a powerful policy, because it shifts costs off of taxpayers and local government. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has some of the most progressive recycling policies in the U.S., making Wisconsin a great place to pursue improvement in beverage container recycling. In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has just recently adopted a solid waste management policy entitled “Moving Toward Zero Waste.”

Wisconsin’s Current Beverage Container Recovery Performance

As of February 2003, there is no concrete data for Wisconsin’s beverage container recovery performance, as the state does not isolate this material stream in its municipal solid waste data collection. However, examining estimates of this rate is important, as it demonstrates the need for significant improvement of beverage container recovery in Wisconsin.

Curbside recycling programs are the main beverage container recovery mechanisms utilized in Wisconsin. One report, conducted by Franklin Associates, Ltd. in July 2002, estimates that 56 percent (by weight) of the 294,950 tons of aluminum, plastic, and glass containers (mostly beverage but some foods) generated in 2000 were recovered and recycled through aluminum buy-back centers and the state’s curbside program. However, this recovery rate is based on estimates of beverage container generation and waste generation extracted from national sales and waste data respectively.

Many solid waste professionals in the state do not consider Franklin Associates’ estimates to be an accurate reflection of Wisconsin’s performance. Many agree that the estimates are inflated due to heavy assumptions. In scoping meetings with recycling program managers across the state, educated estimates of Wisconsin’s beverage container recovery rate hovered around 30 to 35 percent. The general consensus seemed to be that Wisconsin is doing an effective job of capturing beverage containers consumed at home, but is failing to capture the large majority of single serve beverage containers that are increasingly consumed away from home.

According to the Container Recycling Institute, 3.5 billion beverage containers were generated in Wisconsin in the year 2000. This means whether Wisconsin is recycling 20 percent or 50 percent of the beverage containers produced, billions of bottles and cans are still wasted each year. Meanwhile, as proven by the BEAR report, more effective systems operate in other states that are capable of capturing 80 percent or more of total beverage container waste. Even without an exact recovery rate for the state, it cannot be denied that Wisconsin, like many states, has a beverage container waste problem. The lack of an exact rate should not prevent the state from pursuing a known, effective solution.

Environmental Benefits of Beverage Producer Responsibility Systems

The recycling of aluminum, glass, and plastic bottles and cans has far-reaching environmental benefits. According to the BEAR report, the U.S. recovered and recycled 78.1 billion, (or 41 percent) of the total beverage containers generated in 1999. The recycling of these containers avoided 4 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, saved 32,464,000 barrels of oil, preserved 19.7 million cubic yards of landfill space, and kept 796 million containers from littering our roadsides.

In states with deposit systems where producers are responsible for the recovery and recycling of beverage containers, roughly two and a half times more beverage containers are recovered than in those states with out deposit legislation. So if states without deposit laws shift the responsibility of beverage container recovery to the producers, then their recovery rates, and the correlated environmental benefits from recycling, will necessarily increase.

Based on 1999 data from the BEAR report, if all U.S. producers in all 50 states were responsible for the recovery and recycling of 80 percent of beverage containers produced, an additional 3.8 million metric tons of greenhouse emissions would be avoided, an additional 31,549,000 barrels of oil would be conserved, another 19.1 million cubic yards of landfill space would be preserved, and an additional 773.1 million containers would not be littered.

If Wisconsin shifts the responsibility of beverage container waste off taxpayers and onto producers, significantly more beverage containers will be recycled, thereby significantly increasing the associated environmental benefits.

Potential Economic Impacts of Producer Responsibility Legislation

Producer responsibility legislation typically results in a deposit system, whereby consumers, producers, retailers, distributors, and handlers share in the cost of recovering and recycling beverage containers. Unlike curbside programs, deposit systems do not rely on tax revenues. Consumers pay a 5 or 10 cent deposit on beverage containers included in the program, and then they redeem the bottles through a manual return system that requires handling and sorting of bottle, typically through a retailer, or through a reverse vending machine.

Curbside recycling programs and deposit systems target different waste streams, and have different costs and levels of effectiveness. Curbside recycling programs typically target materials consumed in the home: newspapers, milk jugs, cardboard boxes, detergent bottles, and more. Deposit systems specifically target single-serve beverage containers that are increasingly consumed away from the home.

According to the BEAR report, the net cost per container for curbside programs, including revenue from material sales is 1.72 cents. This cost is borne by rate payers and tax revenue. Deposit systems have 2.21 cent net cost per container including revenue from material sales. This cost is borne by producers, retailers, distributors, consumers, and handlers.

According to the BEAR report, deposit systems achieve the highest level of recovery. In 1999, states with deposit systems had an average redemption rate of 78 percent for all targeted beverage containers. Curbside programs in non-deposit states achieved a recovery rate of 18.5 percent. As a region, the ten deposit states achieved through all types of recovery programs an overall recovery rate of 71.6 percent, compared to 27.9 percent in non-deposit states.

Deposit systems are the most cost effective. The BEAR report demonstrated that a combination of recycling methods in 10 deposit states recycled 490 containers per capita per year, at a cost of 1.53 cents per unit, versus 191 containers per capita per year at 1.25 cents per unit in 40 non-deposits states. So at an additional cost of only 1.5 cent per six-pack, beverage container recovery rates in deposit states are more than two and a half times higher than in states without deposit systems.

Statewide curbside programs can operate successfully in conjunction with producer-funded recovery systems. BioCycle’s 2001 report, State of Garbage, showed 79 percent of the population in deposit states is also served by successful curbside recycling programs.

Several studies have also researched the economic effect of a deposit system on an existing curbside program. In 1991, the Seattle Solid Waste Utility conducted its own analysis to determine the impact of a national bottle bill on the economics of the City’s recycling program, one of the oldest and most successful curbside recycling programs in the nation. The study found that 42 to 54 percent more beverage container tonnage would be diverted, while there would be an overall net system savings to the city between 236,917 and 632,774 dollars. They concluded, “…a bottle bill would divert additional tonnage with no significant impact to ether City costs or curbside recycling profits.”

The City of Cincinnati found that overlaying a beverage container deposit system with its curbside program would result in a 60 percent recovery rate increase while simultaneously decreasing the city’s recycling costs from 94 dollars per ton to 72 dollars per ton.

James E. McCarthy’s 1993 study, Bottle Bills and Curbside Recycling: Are They Compatible?, found that “…deposit systems and curbside programs are compatible. While each can be used to target various segments of the waste stream, both approaches in combination are likely to increase the amount and quality of the material collected. Deposit systems skim potential sources of revenue from curbside programs, but they also reduce operating costs of curbside collection and processing. Local government appears to achieve greater diversion at a lower cost per ton if programs run in conjunction” with one another.

Specific impacts of a deposit program on an existing curbside program will vary depending on the particular local economies of the curbside program. However, certain trends can be expected. Overall beverage container recovery rates will increase significantly. The quality of materials in both systems will improve, as the breaking of glass and its associated contamination, particularly in commingled systems, to other material streams is drastically reduced. Curbside programs will lose aluminum revenue. However, loss of aluminum revenue is likely to result anyway due to the continued growth of plastics over aluminum in the container market. Loss of aluminum revenue will be offset by the loss of low-value glass and plastics, that either have high cost per volume collection rates or low end market prices. Finally, a deposit program in conjunction with a curbside program will result in savings to local governments, as it will shift the financial responsibility of beverage container recovery to the producers, thus saving the local government collection and processing costs.


In conclusion, despite the absence of hard data on Wisconsin’s beverage container recovery performance, it is clear that the state’s curbside programs are not adequately capturing the large majority of beverage container waste in the state. This is not an indictment of curbside programs but rather indicative of the limits of taxpayer funded programs. A clear solution to this problem exists – producer responsibility. As demonstrated in other states and studies, producer responsibility and its related deposit systems recover more beverage containers, reap more environmental benefits, are more cost-effective, are compatible with existing curbside programs, and justly shift the costs of recovery and recycling away from tax payers and onto producers.


  • Biocycle. State of Garbage in America: 13th Annual Biocycle Nationwide Survey. December 2001.
  • Container Recycling Institute. 2000 Market Data Analysis. 2002.
  • Franklin Associates, Ltd. Wisconsin Waste Characterization and Management Study Update. July 2002.
  • McCarthy, James E. Bottle Bills and Curbside Recycling: Are They Compatible? Library of Congress. January 27, 1993.
  • R.W. Beck, Ed Boisson and Associates, Franklin Associates, Ltd., Sound Resource Management, and Tellus Institute. Understanding Beverage Container Recycling: A Value Chain Assessment prepared for the Multi-Stakeholder Recovery Project. Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling. January 16, 2002.
  • Seattle Solid Waste Utility. Potential Impacts of a National Bottle Bill on Seattle’s Curbside Recycling Program. September 1991.
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