Container deposit laws: A winner for preventing ocean plastics pollution

June 7, 2018


Today is World Oceans Day – a day when people around our blue planet celebrate and honour the ocean, which connects us all. However, Ocean plastics have rapidly emerged as one of the most significant and fastest growing threats to marine ecosystems and the myriad services they provide to humanity.  The volume of plastics entering the ocean every year is between 4.8 million and 12.7  million metric tonnes, with possibility to increase a further ten-fold by 2025 in a ‘business as usual’ scenario.

Since the advent and subsequent explosive growth in plastics production starting in the early 1950s, we have produced about 8 billion metric tonnes of plastic, the vast majority of it still in existence and a sizeable fraction, about 60 percent, either in landfills or the environment, including the ocean. That’s about one tonne of plastic for every human being on earth – or 10 pounds of plastic for every pound of human!  Only about 9 percent of the plastic produced so far has been recycled, so we remain a long way from truly ‘closing the loop’ on ocean plastics pollution. 

Rivers represent a major vector for introduction of plastics to the ocean, transporting some 1.15 million to 2.41 million metric tonnes per year or between 9 percent and 50 percent of the total. We know that marine plastics can entangle marine mammals and turtles, damage coral reefs, cause ‘ghost’ fishing and be ingested by many organisms, from the smallest plankton to the largest whales. UN Environment estimates that marine plastics pollution causes economic damage of US$13 billion per year.

Polyethylene, or PET, which is the main polymer used for soft drinks, bottled water and selected other containers represents the second most common plastic item found in beach clean-ups, after cigarette butts, and, unlike many plastic resins, floats due to its lower density than seawater, permitting its transfer across entire ocean basins and accumulation in the so-called ‘garbage patches’ of ocean central gyres.

In the US, Europe, Canada and Australia, one of the most successful strategies for closing the loop on PET and aluminium and glass bottle waste has been container deposit laws (CDL), known in the US as ‘bottle bills’.  These apply a very simple but effective approach: each bottle a consumer purchases includes in its price a ‘deposit’, typically ranging from 5 to 25 cents, which the consumer receives back when they return the bottle to a redemption centre (usually a machine, or manual receipt and processing). The basic economics of CDLs work as one would predict: higher deposits deliver higher returns.

Most CDLs are designed such that the beverage companies and consumers pay the costs of administering the programmes, not municipalities or taxpayers, e.g. application of the polluter pay and extended producer responsibility (EPR) principles, and these costs average only one to two cents per container.

Studies in Hawaii, Canada, Australia and elsewhere have demonstrated that CDLs reduce local marine plastics pollution – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping to mitigate climate change. 

Lastly, CDLs create jobs to support the various steps of collection, processing and remanufacturing; for example, Michigan’s CDL led to a net increase of 4,648 jobs and, depending on the system, CDLs create 11 to 38 times more jobs than curbside recycling.

In addition to the 10 US states, CDLs are in place or anticipated in most Canadian and Australian provinces, the UK, many European countries, and Israel. Interestingly, the only developing countries that appear to have taken steps to introduce CDLs are the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – Micronesia, Kiribati, Barbados, Palau and Fiji, where UNDP funded a feasibility study to look at the possibility of establishing a CDL.  

In sum, Container Deposit Laws are a proven, cost effective, polluter pays strategy that can help countries and communities make important progress in reducing plastics pollution to the ocean and overall environment. More information about CDLs can be found in:

And there are many others with a wealth of useful resources. UNDP looks forward to working with its programme countries and partners towards closing the loop on ocean plastics pollution.

Learn more about UNDP’s work on the ocean and marine ecosystems.