One day, this may be me. Photo: Flickr/Ryan Van Eng
As a prolific beer drinker with a minor Diet Coke addiction, I leave behind vast clinking, crumpled sums of empty cans and bottles every week. Given New York’s nickel-deposit law, there’s cash in my trash. But instead of trading my vessels for coins to buy more carbonated pleasure, I consign my waste to a recycling bin or bag it and tie it to my fence—a present for the muttering shopping-cart men clattering down my block, collecting bottles and cans like magpies.
Chalk it up to sloth. When I was 22 and residing in Astoria, I had more time than money. Laboring as a part-time receptionist barely netted enough to afford both Krasdale-brand macaroni and cheese and Coors Light. Every nickel counted. Thus, several times a week I’d gather my gleaming cans, root around my neighbors’ rubbish for more, then tromp back to C-Town and feed the recycling machine. The three or four wrinkled dollars I earned made me feel as flush as a Saudi Arabian king. Well, a king that subsisted on cut-rate carbohydrates, but you get the point.
Nowadays my time is more valuable than a five-cent bottle deposit. Hell, I’d gladly burn a $20 bill if meant an extra hour of shut-eye. To the average drinker, the nickel deposit is viewed more as an additional tax than an incentive to return the glass carafes. To someone sucking back a $14 six-pack of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, 30 cents is a pittance. A small deposit is small potatoes.
Then I visited a country where the bottle deposit socked me in my wallet. Over Christmas and New Year’s, my girlfriend and I ventured to Mexico’s sunny, Caribbean-hugging Yucatán peninsula. It was a 10-day trip to recharge our batteries, to stop arguing about who’d walk our dog every frostbitten, 15-degree morning. It was just what the relationship doctor ordered. I read trashy detective novels. She received deep-tissue massages. We ate tacos stuffed with sautéed fish caught that morn; queso tamales drenched in habañero-spiked salsa; and, in my case, enough cochinita pibil—pork marinated in citrus, wrapped in banana leaves, then slow-cooked till softer than a toddler’s tush—to make me carve a new notch in my leather belt. Accompanying every meal was a liter-size bottle of cold Sol beer.
Given my preference for bitter, strong India pale ales, I didn’t care much for bubbly, innocuous Sol; the lager is a clone of Corona and other clear-bottle Mexican lagers. But the beer glided down easy on a 90-degree day, was omnipresent and, most importantly, cheap. I could nab a liter (technically 940ml) for around 20 pesos (about $1.75), or a 1.2-liter missile for a few pesos more. Tax was included. The deposit was a humdinger: Each bottle was assessed a refundable fee of five to eight pesos, or about 25 to 30 percent of the beer’s cost. My cheapskate alarm sounded loud and shrill.
“That’s, like, three dollars worth of deposit!” Itold my girlfriend that first night, pointing to my quartet of cold, sweaty bottles. In New York, that was the equivalent of 60 beers, a sum that’d take me at least a month or more to suck down. “Well, you better start drinking,” she said. She didn’t have to tell me twice.
Whenever I’d disappear a Sol, I’d carefully rinse the bottle and return it to the store. Grinning, I’d give the clerk the bottle, as proud as a 5th-grader presenting a straight-A report card to dear old dad. In return, I received a handful of shiny coins. “This makes you so happy, doesn’t it?” my girlfriend said, watching me gaze upon the coinage as if I were Gollum with his precious ring. “It’s my reward for being a good drinker,” I said.
This made my brain juices flow. How high would a deposit need to be for you to eagerly return your empties? For example, Brooklyn suds emporium Bierkraft requires a $4.50 deposit on its growlers. I treat the jug as if it were gold, as I do my refillable bottle from organic dairy Milk Thistle, in which I’ve invested a buck. Why should beer be different? Let’s jack the deposit. Make it a quarter on cans and 12-ounce longnecks, a buck for larger bottles—there’s equal value in the vessel and its liquid. No doubt this notion is destined to fail, much like Bloomberg’s soda tax. But maybe, just maybe, I’ve caught lightning in a bottle.