In some states in the US you can return your cans/bottles for a fee. This fee was added to your purchase and you redeem the fee by returning the can/bottle.

The process of collecting your fee is automated by a scanner, that scans the barcode. Not all barcodes qualify for a refund of the fee.

If hypothetically a canned drink that does not incur the fee upon purchasing the item is returned experimentally and found that the machine registers a refund, (or if a store does not charge a fee but another store honors the product for a fee) is it ethical to collect refunds on a product you were never charged a fee to begin with? Especially ongoing, deliberately making a profit on something that may never be discovered?

Would there ever be a situation in which this would be ethical?

(I see no issue returning someone else’s cans/bottles and collecting their fee because a fee was paid to begin with and they have forfeited the right to the fee by disposing of the can/bottle without returning it to redeem the fee. technically you’re supposed to return the can/bottle to the same store you purchased it from).

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    Deception is seen as unethical by most value systems, prima facie. But if another store gives refunds even for bottles they did not sell then they willingly absorb the losses for whatever reasons they might have. There is no deception involved, it is a form of charity. And even with deception, consequentialists would hold that if it is put to the service of a "greater good" (if the money is used to avoid starving, or donated to an orphanage, for example) then the action might be ethical in the final reckoning.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 6:37
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    @Conifold thank you for your answer in the comment section. Concise. What I’ve encountered is that this is not considered deception according to some, if the person at a loss is not deaf or blind. Which I guess translated to, why not take advantage of someone’s misunderstanding/ignorance and profit, they are competent and have the power to change the situation but don’t. One time the foreign exchange rate accidentally published extremely good rates but when a banking customer purchased a large amount and cashed it the next day they did not honor it. Who was dishonest? The customer? Commented May 11, 2019 at 2:12
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    This alters what you described in the post. Knowingly taking advantage of someone with a handicap is a far more serious ethical transgression than mere deception. This would be in the Kantian "treating simply as a means" territory, and is generally detested.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 4:47
  • I genuinely think you misread what I wrote. I said, so long as they are NOT blind or deaf... then pointing out where they are losing is not necessary. It is their responsibility to do their own due diligence and if they fail then one should profit from their ignorance guilt free. @Conifold. Commented May 11, 2019 at 5:09
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    The handicap need not be physical, or even mental, it can be innocence or naivete. The rationalizations you refer to would still be characterized as moral sophistry. Of course, there are contexts where the lack of due diligence is the case. This is why there are few generalities in ethics, much depends on context sensitive judgments.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 5:13

1 Answer 1


I think that the fee is there to encourage people to return bottles/cans. Bottles and cans are recycled. Some vendors will add the cost o the bottle to their vending cost but then they will pay you back for it and they will reuse (recycle) it, so this represents a save for them. Other vendors are not bother. When you say ethical you refer to morals and this is something you need to decide for yourself. I can't see any issue in taking back cans and bottles to be recycled first you help the nature. If a producer is receiving other produces type of cans/ bottles then is there own system fault.

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