Reducing Plastic Pollution through Economic Incentives

Schuyler, Q., Hardesty, B. D., Lawson, T. J., Opie, K., & Wilcox, C. (2018). Economic incentives reduce plastic inputs to the ocean. Marine Policy.

The Problem with Plastic Pollution

Plastic is convenient, durable, and relatively inexpensive to produce. These qualities are reasons why its use has exploded over the last fifty years. But what makes this material a go-to for countless products also makes it detrimental in many ways. Its durability makes it an environmental nightmare since it does not break down when improperly disposed of and thus poses a threat to wildlife, public health, and tourism, which results in lost economic revenue.

An example of plastic waste impacting tourism is one area of coastal Los Angeles, California where marine debris costs an estimated $68 M per year from lost tourism revenue. Among plastic pollution, one of the most commonly littered items are plastic beverage containers. These plastic bottles can enter the environment through direct littering or indirectly when they escape waste management collection systems. Since all runoff from land eventually makes its way to the coast, any plastic bottles caught up in rain events eventually make their way to the coast as well. Enacting legislation is becoming a more common practice to reduce coastal and marine plastic debris.

Curbing Plastic Pollution: Two Main Types of Legislation

To help curb environmental pollution from waste there are two varieties of legislation. This legislation includes “command and control” measures and market-based economic instruments. Command and control measures involve direct regulation of activities or unwanted items through legislation. Examples of this include bans on microbeads in personal care products or bans on single-use plastic bags. Alternatively, economic instruments aim to influence human behavior through economic incentives or disincentives.

Economic incentives aim to promote positive behavior. A common type of economic incentive is a container deposit legislation (CDL) where upon buying an item the purchaser pays a deposit fee that is returned when the bottle is returned. Disincentives aim to deter certain behavior and include practices such as charges for plastic bags or disposal taxes for certain items. In the U.S. ten states have CDL including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. Typically CDL involves a 5-cent charge on glass, aluminum, and plastic beverage bottles that is returned when the bottle is returned.

Implementing economic incentives can be more expensive to execute than disincentives, but in comparison they avoid negative impacts such as illegal dumping since disincentives can increase dumping as people may discard items anywhere in the environment to avoid taxes imposed when discarding items. Refund schemes or positive incentives have been shown to increase recovery of materials. To date, there has been a lot of research on the economic impact of CDL. However, not as much research has been done to examine the effectiveness of CDL reducing mismanaged waste, particularly plastic beverage bottles along the coast.

Putting it to the Test: How Effective are these Incentives?

In this study comparisons were made between states with and without cash incentives for properly returning beverage containers within both the United States and Australia. Debris surveys revealed states with CDL had proportionally forty percent less littered containers than states without CDL. Additionally, CDL states had a higher ratio of bottle lids to bottles, furthering highlighting the effectiveness of incentives to properly return bottles. Currently, there is no economic incentive to return lids. Thus, the increased presence of lids highlight that it is not the case that some areas where fewer bottles are found simply drink less bottled beverages since if this were the case there would not be a difference between the areas with and without CDL in the number of littered lids. Overall this study is helpful in supporting legislation that helps curb plastic marine debris. Curbing plastic waste and debris helps keep our beaches, oceans, and environment safe and healthy.

When container deposit legislation (CDL) is in place there are less plastic bottles found littered in the environment (left set of bar graphs). Highlighting the effectiveness of such policies that encourage proper bottle return and/or disposal are greater instances of bottle lids found without bottles present (right set of bar graphs).
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Katelyn Szura

I am currently completing my Masters in Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Rhode Island. My research focuses on examining how nitrogen inputs affect greenhouse gas fluxes from salt marshes, ultimately linking this work to how it impacts carbon storage in coastal wetlands. When not knee deep in marsh mud I enjoy running, hiking, sailing, and spending time with my pup, Bailey.

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