Reviving Refilling in the United States

Refilling puts people to work and saves money for taxpayers. By taking beverage containers out of the municipal waste stream, refilling greatly reduces the public costs of waste management. The capacity vacated by beverage containers allows collection of other materials for recycling, which in turn reduces landfill tipping fees. Refilling also can reduce the prices of beverages. The environmental benefits of refilling are compelling too. As David Saphire concluded in his 1994 book, Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles, “With sufficient trippage, refillable glass or PET bottles use less material than one-way bottles made of the same material, use less energy in extracting raw materials and manufacturing bottles, use less total energy (including extraction, manufacturing, washing and distribution), and generate smaller quantities of pollutants during the manufacturing process” [SAPH, p. 52].

Despite these myriad benefits, America’s leading soft-drink and beer companies have no plans to increase their use of refillable containers [SAPH, p. 44]. The increased use of refillable milk bottles is also unlikely. Most milk is sold through retailers [SAPH, p. 47], who adamantly refuse to stock anything in reusable packaging. Indeed, if we want refillable beverage containers in America, we need to spark public demand for refillables and advocate for appropriate government policies to promote or require refilling. Unlike Europe, where policies focus on maintaining the existing refillable infrastructure, the United States is in need of policies to revive refilling and rebuild its dismantled refillable infrastructure.

Taxes on one-way containers, for instance, are a good policy instrument to preserve existing refilling systems, but may not work as well to jump-start new refilling systems. Such taxes, in effect, give refillables a price discount, which can act as an economic incentive to buyers to choose refillables over one-way containers. (They are also good in generating revenue, which could be used to support refilling or other environmental objectives.) But if beverage companies do not offer refillables in the first place, the incentive is non-existent. Furthermore, once refillables are available and the public has a packaging choice, the tax would have to be high enough to actually influence buying behaviour. More research might be worthwhile to explore how high the tax would need to be in order to impact sales of one-way beverages and encourage the beverage industry to offer more refillable containers. Saphire further points out that the U.S. public may view such taxes as an across-the-board price increase on beverages [SAPH, p. 245]; thus, taxes may not be politically as viable as other policy approaches.

We know that some form of deposit system is vital to achieve high return rates for refillable containers. But we also know deposits alone are not enough. Saphire presents the following policy options to promote use of refillables in the United States [SAPH, pp. 53-57, 224, 235-236]:

  • Couple deposit legislation with refillable quotas or with mandatory refilling.
  • Set deposit levels higher than are presently required in states with deposit laws to give the public a strong economic incentive to return bottles for refilling.
  • Establish multi-tier deposits under which people receive a full deposit refund with refillable bottles and a “half-back” refund with recyclable containers. Set the maximum deposit level high enough to ensure high returns and to encourage the public to buy refillables. (To avoid building in an incentive that discourages the beverage industry from offering refillables, ILSR recommends that the beverage industry not automatically retain unredeemed deposits. Rather, government agencies can make funds available to industry for specific projects that invest in refilling.)
  • Provide payments (and make the payments mandatory) to retailers and wholesalers who handle empty refillable bottles to cover their handling costs and to give them an incentive to accept refillables. (A sliding scale could compensate smaller stores that might be less efficient than larger supermarket chains.)
  • Structure quota system to set a minimum reuse/recycling level for beverage containers, which could be met either through refilling, recycling, or some combination of the two.
  • Make refilling part of a more comprehensive waste reduction strategy.
  • Require or encourage industry to use generic bottles to simplify the return of refillables and the sorting and storage for retailers, and to reduce the number of bottles any one beverage company needs to purchase, thereby lowering beverage companies’ costs.

Prince Edward Island (Canada) and Denmark, which have the highest refilling rates in the world, have combined deposits with outright bans on one-way containers. In the United States, a delayed ban on non-refillable beverage containers would ensure that all beverage containers are refillable or recyclable and give industry time to convert. A policy approach focusing on a ban of one-way containers could include the following provisions.

  • All glass and plastic beverage containers must be refillable and must meet specific criteria in order to qualify as refillable. Government has the authority to establish these criteria, to establish a container registration system, and to require the labelling of containers to indicate that they are refillable.
  • All secondary packaging must be reusable or recyclable.
  • Cartons are banned.
  • Government has the authority to set minimum deposits and minimum refunds for all beverage containers covered under this law.
  • A deposit must be charged for all beverages packaged in cans. (Allowing aluminum cans would give consumers a choice of beverage packaging, ensure a supply of aluminum in American industry, and preclude opposition from the aluminum industry, can makers, and their unions. Charging a deposit on aluminum cans would help ensure that this supply of aluminum does not go to landfills.)
  • The retailer or other seller must take back refillable containers or aluminum cans of any beverages that were purchased from them.
  • All beverage companies, distributors, retailers, and other affected parties have six years after the effective date of this law to achieve full compliance.

While an outright ban on one-way beverage containers would certainly revive refilling in the United States and complement zero-waste planning, achieving such a ban would be a monumental political challenge. In order to ultimately reach high refilling levels in the United States, refillable container advocates might first pursue the following intermediate and complementary steps, many of which are discussed in Saphire’s book, Case Reopened [Saphire, pp. 53-57, 224, 235-236]:

  • Educate the public, especially about the differences between refilling and recycling, the greater environmental benefits refilling may offer, and the benefits and purpose of deposit systems.
  • Broaden deposit laws to cover all beverages, not just beer and soft drinks.
  • Establish government procurement policies that favor refillables. Ideal candidates for such policies include military installations, schools, hospitals, and correctional facilities.
  • Provide financial incentives for companies to use refillable bottles.
  • Provide financial incentives for companies that switch from one-way containers to refillable bottles (these could include tax credits and low-interest loans to any player in the beverage chain that converts). Incentives, which could be funded from unredeemed deposits or even the half-back deposit, could encourage companies to invest in equipment and bottles.
  • Focus on niche markets that offer the most immediate opportunities for expanding refilling. Niche markets include states with deposit laws; restaurants, bars, and cafeterias, which offer on-premise settings; and small-scale beverage companies operating within certain geographical regions such as micro brews.
  • Encourage the public and community groups to ask beverage companies to offer their products for sale in refillable bottles.
  • Challenge the beverage industry to reintroduce refillable containers and at minimum to support extended producer responsibility and a national deposit law.
  • Implement policies that help establish a new infrastructure of outside contractors to collect, inspect, and wash refillable bottles. Such policies could be integrated into local economic development efforts.
  • Establish policies that internalize the environmental costs of an economic activity so that industry absorbs these costs and accounts for them in pricing its goods and services. For example, taxes on virgin materials or energy consumption, would give industry an incentive to reduce material consumption.
  • Establish two-tiered “pay-as-you-throw” fee systems that charge a higher fee for trash collection and a lower fee for recycling collection. Thus, residents would have an incentive to choose reusable products over recyclable ones. Most pay-as-you-throw programs only charge residents fees for setting out trash, recycling set-out is free.
  • Further identify the opportunities, strategies, barriers, and environmental benefits of refillable beverage containers.

For more information about policy instruments for mandating or promoting refilling, see the policies page of this web site.

Half-truths vs. Facts

Half-truth. Refilling will raise the prices of packaged beverages.
Fact. If this statement were true, then Coca-Cola would not use refillable bottles in Latin America in order to make its products affordable to more consumers [FEMC]. After refilling becomes prevalent in the US again, in addition, competition could drive prices lower [SAPH, p. 216]. The economics page of this web site gives examples and cites studies that show beverages in refillable containers cost less than those in one-way containers.

Half-truth. American consumers will not return containers at rates high enough to make refilling economical.

Fact. In markets where refillable beverage containers are prevalent, the return rates exceed 90 percent and in most cases exceed 97 percent. Indeed, these markets are mostly in Canada and in Europe, but these high percentages show that people are willing and able to return containers. Americans would be willing to return containers if the deposits are high enough and would be able to do so if it is convenient. Moreover, just as Coke and Pepsi used advertising in the 1960s to instill in consumers a habit of throwing away beverage containers [CW; pp. 142-143, 325], these and other companies could use their vast advertising resources to promote the habit of returning them. Brewers Retail, Inc., Ontario’s leading beer retailer, successfully uses advertising to promote the return of refillable beer bottles [BRI].


For more information about some of these sources, go to the annotated bibliography (B) or to the links.


  • [BRI] Brewers Retail, Inc. [Mississauga, Ontario] (L)
  • [CW] Louis, J. C., and Harvey Yazijian. The Cola Wars. New York: Everest House, 1980. (B)
  • [FEMC] Coca-Cola FEMSA, S.A. “Coca-Cola FEMSA 2000 Annual Report.”
  • [SAPH] Saphire, David. Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles. New York: INFORM, Inc., 1994. (B)