The Logic Behind the Legislation: Beverage Container Refunds in Alberta

liftarn-Recycling-bin-and-bottlesJoe Sellman (3L)

Over the summer, I had an empty water bottle and I was trying to decide what I was going to do with it. I obviously wasn’t going to throw it in the garbage, but really the question was: do I try and find a recycling bin, or do I take it home? In the end, the closest recycling bin won out.

On reflection, this story has two uses: firstly, it shows what an exciting life I lead, and secondly, it really got me thinking about the beverage container deposit scheme, and the financial incentives that form part of it. From here, I started to wonder at what bottle price would I always take a bottle home, and then more generally, how the refund amount has changed over time. For example, taking inflation into account, was the bottle refund more, less, or the same financial incentive in the past? The more I thought about bottle deposits, the more questions I had. Why is the scheme limited to beverage containers? When did the scheme in Alberta start? What were the reasons for a legislated scheme?

My indecision at lunch had morphed into a make-work hobby research project, tangentially related to the law. This was a happy day. Today, I share with you all the happiness of knowing the results of my quest for knowledge.

The Value of Beverage Container Refunds in Alberta

In 1971, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed the Beverage Container Act. A year later, in 1972, the Beverage Container Regulation set the refund amounts at two cents for bottles less than a litre and five cents for bottles over a litre. Adjusting for inflation, today this would be 12 cents and 31 cents. The current Beverage Container Recycling Regulation refund amounts were last updated in 2008 to 10 cents and 25 cents. This shows us that the value of a refund, and therefore the economic incentive to return a beverage container, is relatively unchanged over the last 50 years.

However, this lesson in inflation tells us nothing about why the deposit scheme was born.

The History of Beverage Container Refund Schemes

Originally, industry led the way in bottle refunds. Their motivation arose from the fact that it was cheaper for the beverage provider to reuse containers than buy new ones. Deposits acted as an incentive to the drinker to return the container, and in theory everybody won through lower costs. This type of scheme still exists. I have a growler to return to the farmers’ market to get two dollars off my next growler of kombucha.

However, during the 20th century, there was an increase in consolidation and centralization in drink production, as well as a significant decrease in the cost of producing bottles.

But how did we get from there to a legislative scheme? In Alberta at least, the answer is farmers. The reason the Government wanted to incentivise the return of beverage containers was for farmers. Specifically, farmers were complaining of drivers discarding their beverage containers along highways (and elsewhere). These bottles were causing injury to farm animals and workers. As well, containers were getting caught in farming machinery and contaminating crops.