First they tackled plastic bags. Now they’re taking aim at bottles.

On a frigid Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Southeast Washington, around 100 volunteers gathered in Pope Branch Park just off Interstate 295 and the Anacostia River. Trash grabbers in hand, they set off across frozen ground for a park cleanup largely devoted to collecting discarded plastic.

On this day of service, volunteers found hard plastic and soft plastic. Plastic bags. Plastic detergent dispensers. A plastic laundry basket and a child’s plastic basketball hoop.

And, of course, there were plastic bottles. As Trey Sherard of the nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeeper prepared to dispatch shivering volunteers clutching coffee cups on their mission, he held forth on the ubiquitous containers that, according to his organization’s statistics, make up 60 percent of the garbage collected from the river.

“If we stop plastic bottles, we could cut the amount of trash in half,” he said.

The sheer volume of plastic bottles shows why environmental advocates in the District, Maryland and Virginia are looking for ways to reduce the number that become litter. As legislation banning plastic bags or forcing consumers to pay for them positively impacts area waterways, activists want to take the next step: allowing customers to return plastic bottles and other containers to reclaim a cash deposit.

While no legislation is currently pending in the D.C. region, activists hope to change that.

“I don’t think there’s any other program in existence that reduces litter more than a deposit system,” said Martha Ainsworth, chair of the Maryland Sierra Club Zero Waste Team.

Volunteers clean up plastic bottles and other items at Pope Branch Park in Southeast. (Michael S. Williamson | The Washington Post)

Bottle bills are familiar to the nation’s legislators. Oregon was the first state to pass a bill — in 1971 — and ten states already have deposit programs.

How these programs operate varies, Ainsworth said, and they are typically run by governments, by beverage producers or by some combination of the two. In possible Maryland legislation, for example, funding would come from registration fees paid by producers to the state and revenue from the sale of raw materials such as plastic or aluminum recovered by the program, among other sources.

Though the deposit per bottle is small — typically 5 or 10 cents — the payoff is huge, advocates say. Microplastics have been found in D.C. rivers as researchers warn of nanoplastics in bottled water. Offering cash to get plastic bottles out of the waste stream is a simple, effective solution.

The war on plastic in the D.C. region has been steadily ramping up since the District passed a 5-cent bag fee in 2009 and Montgomery County followed in 2012.

On Jan. 1, Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria implemented a 5-cent surcharge on plastic shopping bags to curb pollution in the region’s waterways. Prince George’s County, meanwhile, implemented a ban on most plastic bags and a 10-cent fee on paper or carryout bags.

If advocates have their way, as bags go, bottles will follow. There is no shortage of them: About 5.2 billion beverage containers are sold in Maryland per year, according to market data analyzed by the Container Recycling Institute, and just 23 percent are recycled.

Plastic bottles were among the litter collected at the Pope Branch Park Cleanup. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In the District, the need is significant, according to the Return, Refund and Recycle Coalition for D.C. The coalition, which is working on a bottle bill, said that more than 18,000 pounds of litter and bulk trash were removed from the Anacostia during Riverkeeper cleanups in 2023, including more than 4,800 pounds of beverage containers.

Still, no bill has yet been introduced this year in the D.C. Council. The coalition said in a statement that it “is continuing to build our coalition, review model bill language, and conduct educational meetings with Councilmembers and their staff.”

In Maryland, activists are moving faster. Ainsworth of the Maryland Sierra Club said her organization is working on legislation that could be introduced in Annapolis as early as this month.

Technology has made getting bottle deposit refunds — already possible two generations ago — even easier, according to Ainsworth. “Reverse vending machines” available at retailers that sell beverage containers and redemption centers in some regions can accept and sort different kinds of containers, rejecting those that are unacceptable. Deposit systems also keep bottles out of “single-stream” recycling programs where co-mingled refuse can cause contamination that makes recycling difficult.

While it’s great that volunteers clean up parks and waterways regularly, Ainsworth said, legislation would help cut off plastic litter at its source. When empty beverage containers have value, people are less likely to throw them away.

“This would get so much more out of the river than you could do on a cleanup,” she said. “We can’t recycle what we can’t get back.”

Meanwhile, advocates for bottle bills face headwinds in Virginia. Elly Wilson, state director for the nonprofit Environment Virginia, said she doesn’t expect a bottle bill to be introduced in this session of the General Assembly. The beverage industry and retailers have pushed back against such changes in the past, she said.

“We’re producing more than we’ve ever produced,” she said. “We need to move to a circular economy. We need to conserve landfill space and use our resources as best we can.”

In a statement, the American Beverage Association said “America’s beverage companies share the goal of a circular economy that reduces plastic waste and decreases the need for new plastic.”

“Any successful collection system must be convenient to consumers, privately run with appropriate government oversight, and include protections that keep financial resources in the system to ensure its long-term viability — and not go to other government spending,” the statement said.

Two volunteers haul tires at the Pope Branch Park Cleanup. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

As activists push for legislation, communities will keep cleaning up. At the park Monday, Dolly Davis of the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance handed out trash bags to volunteers. She said the neighborhood’s location was a common spot for illegal dumping.

“We have plenty of plastic,” she said.

Across the street from the park, Scott Christian scoured an abandoned railroad track for refuse with his family. He watched as his 10-year-old daughter Quinn wrestled an abandoned tire across the track, dumping it into a growing pile that volunteers would remove.

Christian came out to Monday’s event because his family loves to row. While doing so, they often hit trash, he said, including pallets, oil cans — and plastic bottles.

“It’s nice to get it out of the river before it gets in,” he said.