TennCan: The New and Improved Bottle Bill

Because empties are full of opportunities

Since 2004, Scenic Tennessee has led the grassroots campaign to reduce litter and boost recycling in the Volunteer State via a 5¢ refundable deposit on glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers. Tennessee's proposal, based on decades of data and best practices, calls for a network of independent "redemption centers" owned by private, public and nonprofit interests and supported entirely by scrap revenues, unclaimed deposits and grants and donations. Retailers do not take back empty containers under our bill; bottlers pay neither surcharge nor handling fee; and beverage distributors have no role whatever in collecting, handling, transporting or recycling the empty containers. It's social entrepreneurship at its best.

You can learn all about it at our companion website, www.tenn-can.org. But here's a brief overview:

"Bottle bills," as deposit-return programs are commonly known, have been around for nearly half a century. Introduced mainly to combat littering, they've come to be equally valued for their effectiveness in recovering resources. Credited with reducing overall litter volume by as much as 64%, deposits typically capture three times as many containers as curbside and dropoff combined. Tennessee anticipates an even more dramatic increase: Our current recycling rate for beverage containers is somewhere between 10% and 15%; with a 5-cent deposit, we can expect 85%. 

Given the lackluster success of voluntary recycling programs (and the accompanying issues of breakage and contamination), bottle bills have become vitally important to manufacturers who rely on high volumes of clean scrap to reduce their production costs and meet their sustainability goals.

Deposit-return is also extremely popular with the public, polling at 70% or better in virtually every public-opinion survey. Here in Tennessee, polls have consistently shown more than 80% support for a 5-cent deposit, including 80.2% in a 2008 poll by the University of Tennessee, and 83.2% in the respected MTSU poll in 2009.

In recent years, deposit-return "schemes," as they are also sometimes called, have even been gaining ground among traditional opponents, such as grocery stores and beverage companies. Coca-Cola itself—legendary adversary of mandatory deposits—stunned the recycling world in late 2017 by backing a new deposit scheme in Scotland. 

Scotland was just the latest country to return to returnables. Today, more than 50 jurisdictions around the globe have deposit-return, including 10 US states, nearly all of Canada and Australia, a number of island nations and several European and other countries. We think Tennessee has a real shot at being next.

Tennessee's effort, supported by a broad and bipartisan coalition that ranges from farmers to fishermen, has been continually improved and amended over successive legislative sessions. Originally known as the Tennessee Bottle Bill Project, the campaign is now called TennCan, a nod to the bill's commitment to supporting Tennessee's nonprofits and community causes. Several features of the 2018 legislation are designed with them in mind, including:

Community Connections. Under TennCan, every redemption center in the state will be required to connect with at least one member of the nonprofit community. This can be as simple as choosing a community "buddy"—a Little League team, say, or the town library or animal shelter or volunteer fire department—to receive the proceeds from a donation bin, or a place to store and sort containers during a bottle drive. In return, the redemption center gets first dibs on those lucrative bottle drives, along with increased visibility, traffic and public goodwill.  Many centers, for instance, will themselves be nonprofits—for instance, a sheltered workshop that uses part of its facility to provide jobs and job training to  homeless shelter that uses part of its facility to run a redemption center, provide jobs and job training to clients and create a safe space for the homeless not only to redeem empties but to store their "canning" supplies (the carts, bags and so on that "canners" use to collect discarded and donated empties).  and accept, sort, , a church, a sheltered workshop) or it must be "buddies" with at least one community nonprofit (e.g., a school, an animal shelter, a Little League team). The buddy

Nonprofit governance. Rather than being part of a state agency, the TennCan program will be a quasi-independent NGO (non-governmental organization), monitored by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation but governed by a volunteer board of directors representing various stakeholder interests, including nonprofits, bottlers, recyclers, manufacturers, consumers and municipal and county governments.

Support services. In order to ensure that redemption centers have the guidance, training and resources they need to be successful, the program will include a recycling-market development office; an office providing operational and marketing assistance; and a fundraising and grantwriting office.

Donations. The program will secure IRS 501(c)(3) designation in order to solicit and accept tax-exempt donations and grants from businesses, individuals, organizations and foundations.

Here's how it works: In order to be certified, every redemption center in the state must either BE a nonprofit; or it must (and we can expect at least 500 of them) must name at least one nonprofit "buddy"—a Boy Scout troop, for instance, or an animal shelter, or a local library or volunteer fire department. Or

Or  many cases, the nonprofits who will partner informally with private redemption centers or in many cases operate their own!

    • To learn more, or to join the Tenn-Can e-mail list, go to www.tenn-can.org.
     In the 10 US states, 12 Canadian provinces and 30 other jurisdictions worldwide with deposit-return laws, bottle drives collectively raise tens of millions of fundraising dollars each year. These youngsters at a Michigan elementary school raised $80 for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

    In the 10 US states, 12 Canadian provinces and 30 other jurisdictions worldwide with deposit-return laws, bottle drives collectively raise tens of millions of fundraising dollars each year. These youngsters at a Michigan elementary school raised $80 for victims of Hurricane Katrina.