I have taken an unofficial and unplanned hiatus from PowerBlogging over the last few weeks as I worked toward finishing up a book manuscript that you’ll hear much more about in the coming days. But in the meantime, I did continue to take note of things that might be of interest to PowerBlog readers, and one of these things was a recent NBER working paper, “Discontinuous Behavioral Responses to Recycling Laws and Plastic Water Bottle Deposits.”
I noted it in part because I live in Michigan, the state that has the most generous bottle deposit law in the country, set at a dime per item. It’s also of interest because a pioneer of a similar law at the national stage was none other than Paul B. Henry, son of the renowned evangelical Carl F. H. Henry, and sometime Calvin College professor and politician at both the state and federal levels. The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College is named for him.
Henry held Michigan’s 3rd district seat, and was succeeded by Vern Ehlers, who has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his current term. Like Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from UC-Berkeley, Henry was a professor at Calvin College and held a doctorate from Duke University. His 1970 dissertation, “Types of Protestant Theology and the Natural Law Tradition,” is a prescient dissection of the causes of the ethical chaos of contemporary Protestantism.
In terms of the NBER paper, bottle bills like Michigan’s seem to have the intended effect. “More stringent recycling laws have a greater effect on recycling rates,” notes the study. “The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists.”
Now the economic and environmental value of recycling of this kind is debated. Not all recyclables are created equal, for instance, and the law makes no distinction between types of glass. But apart from the question of the environmental value of the activity in itself, this does seem to be a case of a relatively successful government intervention. Perhaps it is even an intervention that is warranted to some degree given the question of environmental externalities that have yet to be fully quantified.
Even so, beyond the stated aim of the program, in Michigan at least the bottle deposit laws should be judged a social success in part because they have, intentionally or not, provided a kind of informal workfare program. There is money to be made by a person willing to go out and look for returnables. It seems the lesson from the NBER paper and the bottle deposit laws is that incentives matter. It remains to be seen whether in the thirty years that the Michigan law has been in effect, the added up front deposit costs have impacted consumption patterns. It seems doubtful that such costs influence purchases over the long term.
And it also an example of a case in which the law acts as a kind of final barrier, the last resort. If the culture of personal and social responsibility was in effect, where people didn’t litter or recycled without additional incentives, such a law would be superfluous. But in the absence of such a culture, the law steps in to fill the vacuum. The lesson there is, if you don’t like these kinds of laws, look at the deeper cultural causes that allowed them to come into being.