I grew up in Michigan, the state with the highest bottle deposit in the country, and I had no idea how lucky I was. Just like a fish who fails to realize he’s surrounded by water, I failed to understand the value of the deposit until I was in a state without one. My first glimpse of this was on family trips to Cedar Point or King’s Island where I would watch my cousins discard bottles and cans willy nilly while my sister and I would keep them in our bags. I never realized how the incentive changed the way we thought about bottles and cans. Where I grew up, groups would volunteer to clean up after tailgating at Michigan State football games knowing the money they’d make from bottle deposit returns would repay their efforts. Discarded cans and bottles would be easily scooped up by others to redeem at the store. You would never throw a bottle in the trash, it had value.
My sister and I still save recyclable trash in our bags, sure were both eco-conscious, but I think part of it is habit gained from years of hoarding cans and bottles. Deposits make you realize that even trash has value. We spend billions on managing our trash each year, so each time you throw something a way you are incurring a cost. With a deposit. that cost is more real. You start to see bottles and cans as the equivalent to a dime and you are less likely to throw it away. In fact this is such an incentive that Michigan has a 95 percent return rate for their cans and bottles even higher than the 60 to 80 percent return rate of 5 cents deposit programs.
I believe bag taxes, like the one being proposed in Baltimore, can also change behavior. I frequently visit a local grocery store where right by the cash register there is a sign that says “we do not give a bag unless you ask for one.” Yet time and time again, the employee at the register bags my things before I can say “I don’t need a bag.” One time, the employee just gave me the bag and gestured over to the plastic recycling next to me, “If you don’t want it just put it in there,” not understanding that even recycling cannot match the waste reduced by simply not using a bag in the first place. The plastic bag tax will not only change consumer behavior but force stores to change their employees behavior at check out.
The bag tax and deposit both alter consumer behavior. I have tons of reusable bags yet I frequently forget to bring them with me. A bag tax could help turn bringing bags into a habit just like the deposit taught me to save recyclables until I found the right place to discard them. Legislation like the bag tax or deposits not only help us make day to day changes but forever alter our perception of the materials we usually discard and devalue.
Who knew a dime could be worth so much?
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