By ASHLEY ZHOU
Capital News Service
LANSING – A temporary ban on returning bottles and cans for deposits early in the pandemic may have caused long-lasting changes to the recycling habits of Michigan residents.
Michigan’s return rate on bottles and cans, which stood at nearly 89% before the pandemic, has plummeted below 76%.
That’s worrying environmentalists and businesses, including recycling companies that rely on a steady stream of aluminum and glass. And it’s fueled a renewed debate about whether the state’s once-revered bottle bill is due for an update.
The 15.7% drop in redemption rates from 2019 to 2020 is equivalent to 600 million cans not returned, said Michigan Environmental Council President and CEO Conan Smith.
Environmental proponents of the 45-year-old bottle law say 10 cents may no longer be enough to encourage people to make returns. It may be time for an increase, Smith said, although he called that “sort of a last resort.”
“I’d really like to put my faith in Michigan people first,” Smith said.
Officials with Schupan Recycling, Michigan’s largest independent beverage container recycler, said its machines are built to handle a high volume of cans and bottles, but with fewer recyclable goods it becomes more difficult to efficiently run the business.
“You’re really losing out, so it becomes very hard to make money out of it,” said Shayna Barry, Schupan’s director of governmental affairs & strategic partnerships. “When you have low volume, each can becomes exponentially more (expensive) to pick up from the grocery store, (put) in a truck and bring back to an expensive facility.”
Tom Emmerich, the chief operating officer at Schupan, said the pandemic shutdown had “an unintended consequence” of permanently changing \recycling habits.
Once a bottle and can return leader in the country, Michigan’s return rate was already dropping before the pandemic. But it took a huge hit in March 2020 when COVID-19 first hit the state when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer temporarily suspended collection of returnable beverage containers to curb the spread of the virus.
Other states gave retailers the option to accept or decline recyclables, said Susan Collins, the president of the Container Recycling Institute, a California nonprofit that works to recycling practices.
Collins said Michigan was the only state where the available depositors were completely shut down.
According to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, that led to an immediate dip of 15.7 percentage points in return rates between 2019 and 2020. The second- closest was Oregon with a 9-point drop, Collins said.
The unclaimed deposit money is split two ways: 75% to a state fund that cleans up environmental contamination and 25% kept by retailers
In 1990, Michigan’s redemption rate was 98.2% leaving $5.4 million in unclaimed deposits, said Jeff Johnston, a press officer for the department. Last year’s redemption rate, 75.6%, left more than $97 million in unclaimed deposits, and meant far less material returned for recycling, the equivalent of 600 million cans, according to the environmental council.
When voters approved the 1978 bottle law, the 10-cent deposit that was meant to encourage recycling of beverage containers was considered cutting-edge. But today, both proponents and foes of the law are calling for change.
That includes beverage distributors. They’re responsible for collecting bottles and cans from retailers and cleaning and shipping recyclables to be processed into new goods. They say they have struggled to keep up the process and receive no funding to support those efforts.
Although fewer people return bottles for deposits, beverage companies say they’re still investing in the same amount of equipment, staff and trucks to process returns, said Spencer Nevins, the president of Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association, an industry group.
Nevins said distributors deserve a cut of unclaimed deposits to cover their role in the recycling system.
Smith, of the environmental council, argues that distributors and retailers can build extra costs into the price of the beverages. That way, as bottle sales go up, the funding for distributors and retailers can increase as well.
Smith said he opposes giving businesses a portion of unclaimed deposits because as “government and industry get more money, the worse the system works.”
Recycling advocates say the biggest factor in Michigan’s lagging return rate may be the law’s restrictions on returns: The state accepts only aluminum cans and plastic soda bottles for redemption.
Collins of the Container Recycling Institute said in some states including Oregon, California and Hawaii, 88% of all beverages sold are covered by deposits, including water bottles, hard seltzers, and kombucha.
Michigan’s law covers only 55% of beverages, thus forcing residents to put the remaining beverage containers in curbside recycling or the trash, she said.
It’s unclear what percentage of unredeemed bottles and cans in Michigan end up as trash, but statistics from California aren’t promising. There, residents have broad access to curbside recycling, but few unredeemed beverage containers end up in them.
If there’s a bright side, the state’s redemption numbers have slowly crept up each year since 2020. Michigan is one of 10 states with so-called bottle laws, and they have an outsized influence on recycling efforts.
Schupan’s Emmerich said states with bottle laws account for more than half the country’s recycled cans, said Emmerich.
That, Collins said, means “the worst bottle bill is way better” than having none at all.
Ashley Zhou has an environmental reporting internship under the MSU Knight Center for Environmental Journalism’s diversity reporting partnership with the Mott News Collaborative. This story was written for Bridge Michigan.
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