For this week's print edition, I jumped into the surprisingly complicated world of bottle and can collection. The House passed an expansion of the landmark Bottle Bill last week and the economics of those nickel bottle deposits are actually pretty interesting.

I wrote up this little by-the-numbers sidebar for the story, but a quick explanation of where your deposit goes is below the cut.


Whenever I've thought about the finances of the bottle deposit, what came to mind was shopping-cart-pushing people who make their primary income off of collecting and recycling cans.

But the $20-60 they can make a day from the deposits is just the tip of the iceberg. When you pay for a six pack of beer but then don't redeem the bottles, the beverage distribution company gets to keep the deposit. All those nickels really add up: Over 37 billion beer and soda cans have been sold since the Bottle Bill went into effect and the state estimates that Oregon's distributors make $20-30 million a year off of unredeemed deposits.

Off the top of that profit, though, they have to pay some cost to pick up and actually recycle all the turned-in bottles and cans. The state does not keep track of those costs, so I'm not certain what the total profit is for distribution companies. Strangely, those giant can-crushing machines in supermarket parking lots where you can redeem your cans aren't actually paid for by the distributors. Those are run by the grocery stores themselves and it costs them about two cents per bottle or can to run the operation. So when more people recycle at the redemption centers, it actually squeezes grocery stores a bit. Part of the new bottle bill is a section that encourages the creation of big, centralized redemption centers to replace the ones at many neighborhood grocery stores. While these big centers would bring down costs for grocers and distributors, those people who walk day-in, day-out to collect and return cans would have to haul their recyclables farther to earn those nickels.