In recent news coverage about the proposed beverage container recycling refund backed by Conservation Minnesota, a misleading word has been creeping into headlines. “10-cent bottle fee: Slam dunk for environment or consumer nuisance?” asked one. Let’s nip that weed at its roots.
“Fee,” according to the dictionary, means “a sum paid or charged for a service.” You pay a fee to get a copy of your birth certificate. You pay a fee to obtain a driver’s license. You pay a fee to enter a state park. You get something for your fee – but you don’t get your money back. The ranger in the park toll booth doesn’t return your $5 daily permit fee as you exit.
By contrast, you do get a refund back. In the case of Minnesota’s proposed recycling refund law, all you need to do after emptying your soda or beer bottle is rinse it out, take it to a grocery store or redemption center, and collect a dime. You can pocket it or spend it on more beverages.
The refund is an incentive for consumers to return their beverage containers. Incentives work. In states with recycling refunds, beverage container recycling rates generally range in the 70% to 90% zone — well above Minnesota’s rate of about 35%.
If properly framed, Minnesota’s recycling refund can’t lose. A fair policy fight requires accurate language. “Fee” sounds an awful lot like “tax,” a word most focus groups don’t enthusiastically embrace. No tax is involved in this debate – just money back for doing the right thing.