Reverse Vending 101: A beginner’s guide

Wondering what a reverse vending machine is, how it works, or what happens to your bottles and cans after you return them for recycling? Learn more in this introduction to reverse vending.

What is a reverse vending machine?

image of a man with a reverse vending machineA reverse vending machine is a machine where people can return empty beverage containers like bottles and cans for recycling.

The machine typically gives back a deposit or refund amount to the end user. This is what makes it a “reverse” vending machine: instead of the user putting in money and getting out a product (like at a candy vending machine), the user puts a product in and gets out a monetary value.

Reverse vending systems are an automated way to collect, sort and handle the return of used drink containers. The first fully-automated reverse vending machine was developed by TOMRA in 1972.

Reverse vending machines are especially common in regions with deposit return schemes, where you get money back for returning empty beverage containers for recycling.

The name reverse vending machines is sometimes shortened to RVMs. They are also known as redeem machines, or can and bottle recycling machines.

How does a reverse vending machine work?

Recycling your empties is as easy as:

Infographic showing how does a reverse vending machine work

1. Insert your empty containers into the chute at the front of the reverse vending machine.

2. When you’re finished, tap the button at the front of the machine.

3. Take the receipt that the machine prints out. (In regions with deposit return scheme legislation, the receipt shows the value of your recycling refund, which can usually be redeemed at the return location's cash register.)

As you insert your containers, the reverse vending machine will scan the containers’ barcodes, materials or shapes, to identify the type of packaging and give the correct deposit refund. The machine will then sort the containers into different types. Depending on the containers eligible in your region, refillable containers are moved to one storage area in the machine, while containers that can’t be refilled are compacted (crushed) and stored in different bins.

What happens to a bottle or can when it is recycled?

After return, refillable containers are transported back to the bottle or beverage producer for cleaning and refilling. Non-refillable containers are taken to a processing facility for washing and shredding, to go into the production of new containers. The materials must meet regulations for quality and hygiene in order to be used as new drink containers.

Infographic Deposit return system

Why use a reverse vending machine?

Reverse vending machines are a key part of deposit return systems, which see up to 98% of all drink containers returned for recycling. No other waste collection system comes close to these return levels. TOMRA’s reverse vending machines receive more than 45 billion used containers every year for recycling in a closed loop.

Reverse vending machines benefit the environment, end users and the sites collecting bottles and cans for recycling.

Better for the environment: illustration of a mother and daughter walking in nature
  • Separate beverage containers by material type (PET, glass, aluminum).
  • Ensure clean, quality materials that can be used again and again to make new containers. At TOMRA, we call this Clean Loop Recycling.
  • Reduce need for raw materials in making more containers.
  • Keep litter and waste out of landfills, streets and oceans.

Convenient for end users: illustration of a man and his dog with a reverse vending machine
  • Are often located at grocery retail stores, making it convenient to return containers for recycling.
  • Are fast and clean, so recycling is more enjoyable.
  • Let users choose between payout methods, with some regions offering donation to charities, digital payout via electronic funds transfer or retail vouchers toward their grocery bill.
  • Get recyclers engaged in shaping a better environment.

Efficient for business:
image of man with cash register
  • Make recycling collection cleaner and streamlined.
  • Reduce time and mess of staff manually handling and counting containers.
  • Let staff focus on other tasks.
  • Ensure return points take up less physical space on site.
  • Give more storage capacity with compaction and reduce transport needs for containers.
  • Are easy for operators to handle, clean and maintain.

Take your empty bottles and cans to your nearest reverse vending machine. Happy recycling!