If Michigan repeals its bottle deposit law, will residents still recycle?

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published December 3, 2018

LANSING — Hold tight, Cosmo Kramer. You might want to hold off on that big bottle deposit scheme, because there’s a chance the Great Lakes State won’t be offering 10 cents back for cans and bottles anymore.

New legislation — introduced to the Michigan House of Representatives last week by sponsors Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Grand Haven; Rep. Joseph Bellino, R-Monroe; Rep. Daire Rendon, R-Missaukee; Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Delta County; and Rep. Triston Cole, R-Antrim County — seeks to repeal the state’s famed bottle deposit law, which tacks an extra 10 cents on to the cost of each carbonated beverage sold in the state, to be redeemed later for a 10-cent refund. Taking bottles and cans back to retailers for cash returns is a popular practice in Michigan, but it’s one that some recycling advocates say has put a dent in the state’s overall recycling numbers.

Each representative was contacted concerning the legislation; none returned requests for comment by press time.

For the most part, stores seem to support the bill.

“This legislation and review of a four-decade-old program is long overdue to increase Michigan’s recycling rate,” said the Michigan Recycling Partnership in a prepared statement. “Michigan can increase its recycling rate by putting valuable materials like aluminum in curbside recycling carts, which help defray the cost of recycling, rather than return them to stores for a deposit. A single-stream approach is easier for residents and for retailers, manufacturers and distributors who spend millions of dollars annually to take back recyclable bottles and cans.”

The Michigan Recycling Partnership is an organization of retailers, distributors and manufacturers that aims to help “grow Michigan’s recycling rate through comprehensive recycling solutions.” The organization said it has advocated for changes to Michigan’s “outdated and ineffective system” since 1989.

Michigan’s recycling rate is just 15 percent, according to estimated data from Columbia University and published by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. That’s quite a bit below the national rate of just over 34 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Is that because everyone’s taking the bulk of their recyclable materials — glass, plastic and aluminum cans and bottles — back to the store? Or is it because just 25 of Michigan’s 83 counties have convenient access to recycling programs, according to the MDEQ?

Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, said it’s strange, in her opinion, that the bills to repeal Michigan bottle deposits are being touted as ways to boost recycling in the state when not all residents even have the option.

“There are not universally provided recycling options across the state right now, and the bottle bill serves as the primary way people return bottles and cans, because they don’t have bins at their house,” she explained. “We need a strong, cohesive infrastructure for recycling that’s on par with waste disposal. If people don’t have recycling opportunities across the board in Michigan, (bottles) are going to end up in the trash.”

That would be a shame, according to Roger Cargill, the sustainable projects manager for Schupan, the largest processor and marketer of used beverage containers in the country. When people return bottles to the store, there’s a good chance they’ll go to Schupan, which will sell that aluminum and plastic back to manufacturers to make new bottles and cans.

“I think there’s a lot of push at the last minute of this lame duck (session) to try and push this bill through. It’s a litter bill that was created 40 years ago that’s done its job,” Cargill said.

He might be biased, but Cargill is a fan of the bottle bill: It funds brownfield cleanup efforts, it’s supported countless social fundraising efforts through can drives and, most importantly, it’s the cleanest recyclable product available. Once your soda is gone, the bottle is ready to be reused. That’s not the case with all glass, plastic and aluminum items.

“Not sure if you know this, but recycling industries are having a tough time right now. China isn’t taking (recyclables) anymore. (Recyclables are) nasty,” Cargill explained, noting that many items need to be thoroughly cleaned before they can be recycled. And most Americans, well, don’t.

“Don’t get me wrong — cans and bottles have always stayed domestic. But products from bottle fills are so clean, we can recycle them right back into beverage containers. In fact, 60 days from now, a can would probably be refilled and back on the shelves,” he added.

Colette Farris, the spokesperson for the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority, said her organization doesn’t back the elimination of the so-called “bottle bill.”

“This program is the most successful recycling program in the state. The elimination of a monetary incentive to recycle would greatly reduce residents’ motivation to do so, thereby reducing the overall recycling rate statewide,” Farris said.

Introduced Nov. 27, House Bills 6532-6536 have yet to pass the House.