TennCan: The New and Improved Tennessee Bottle Bill Project

Since 2004, Scenic Tennessee has led the grassroots effort 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 by scrap revenues and unclaimed deposits, plus any grants, donations and other revenue generated incidentally. Retailers do not take back empty containers under this 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.tnbottlebill.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 recycling combined. Tennessee anticipates an even more dramatic increase: Our current recycling rate for beverage containers is roughly 10%; with a 5-cent deposit, we can expect 80% to 85%. 

Given the lackluster success of voluntary recycling programs (and the accompanying issues of breakage and cross-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.

 This assortment of litter—overwhelmingly bottles and cans—was collected along 100 feet of roadside in Wilson County in 2013.

This assortment of litter—overwhelmingly bottles and cans—was collected along 100 feet of roadside in Wilson County in 2013.

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 with returns to redemption centers, including 80.4% in the 2008 Recycling Poll by the University of Tennessee Social Science Research Institute, and 83.2% in the Fall 2009 MTSU poll.

In recent years, deposit-return schemes, as they are sometimes called, have even been gaining ground among traditional opponents, such as grocery stores and beverage companies. The largest Coca-Cola franchise in the world, Coca-Cola European Partners, stunned the recycling world in 2017 by backing a "well-designed" deposit-return scheme in the United Kingdom, starting with Scotland. UK supermarket giants Tesco and The Co-op followed suit, advocating for a deposit as away to combat waste and litter, especially the mounting issue of plastic pollution in the ocean. 

Scotland and England are just the latest jurisdictions to return to returnables. Today, more than 50 governments around the globe have deposit-return, including 10 US states, nearly every province in Canada, six of the eight Australia states and territories, a number of island nations, Israel, and several countries in mainland Europe, including Germany, Norway and Sweden. 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 simply as the Tennessee Bottle Bill Project, the name is now TennCan: The Tennessee Bottle Bill Project, a nod to the many things Tennessee can do, especially for nonprofits and community causes.

Why them in particular? Because under the proposed legislation, every redemption center in the state will be required either to be itself a nonprofit—for instance, a homeless services agency, or a sheltered workshop for people with special needs—or it must have an "ongoing beneficial relationship" with at least one local nonprofit or community cause. This can be as simple as hosting bottle drives for the Little League or designating a donation bin for the animal shelter or town library.

To learn more, or to join the TennCan e-mail list, go to www.tnbottlebill.org

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 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.

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