The latest attempt to expand Michigan’s successful bottle deposit law comes as communities across the state struggle to maintain recycling programs amid overseas economic pressures.
The situation highlights Michigan’s bifurcated recycling sector: The 43-year-old bottle deposit law has maintained a recycling rate at more than 90 percent for certain containers, yet the state’s rate for all other recyclable material hovers around 15 percent, among the lowest in the Midwest.
“They’re certainly separate but connected,” said Sean Hammond, policy director with the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council. “We view the bottle bill as a pollution prevention law first and keeping single-use containers out of the Great Lakes, however it does have a clear benefit on recycling.”
Expanding the bottle deposit law to include more containers won’t significantly bolster recycling overall in Michigan, but advocates say it begins to tackle broader issues around solid waste management as single-use containers grow more prominent. For example, including more glass and plastic containers with a deposit removes them from the single-stream recycling system where they have little value, Hammond said.
“Adding more plastic and glass in the bottle bill system would be more valuable to recyclers across the board because it’s already food-grade plastic and is already comingled and not contaminated,” he said. “You can make it into other bottles and reuse it much easier.”
Hammond called expanding the bottle bill a “longtime priority” for the Michigan Environmental Council.
House Bill 5306 and Senate Bill 701 — sponsored by Rep. Jon Hoadley and Sen. Sean McCann, both Democrats from Kalamazoo — would expand the state’s 10-cent refundable deposit to include all other non-carbonated beverages. The proposed bills exempt milk containers.
However, Hammond expects an uphill climb in the state Legislature. The 1976 bottle deposit law was enacted by voters and amendments require a three-fourths majority in both chambers to pass.
Ten states have bottle deposit laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Michigan’s 10-cent rate is among the highest in the country. Some states’ rates vary based on the size and type of beverage.
“We’ve always identified the bottle bill as one of the most effective pollution prevention programs out there,” Hammond said. “As we add more (containers), we want to adapt the bottle bill to a modern standard.”
Matthew Flechter, recycling market development specialist with the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), said Michigan’s bottle bill “is what made Michigan a recycling leader” decades ago.
While the deposit law doesn’t directly link to overall recycling rates, it “increases the quality of the material making its way to the market. That’s the major advantage of having a deposit law,” he said.
For years, major advocacy groups have fought bottle bill expansion proposals, citing concerns over the negative effects to retailers who handle containers and diverting material from local recycling programs.
In the 2018 lame duck session, state Rep. Joseph Bellino, R-Monroe, was among the cosponsors of a plan to repeal the bottle bill based on these concerns. Bellino at the time owned a convenience store in Monroe that collected containers and would have directly benefited from the bill.
“This is really an expansion of an already problematic law,” Amy Drumm, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Retailers Association, said of the most recent expansion plan. “The current bottle deposit law is a tremendous burden on grocery stores taking back bottles and cans at costs they’re not reimbursed for. Expanding that … will only increase those costs for compliance and realistic concerns about where those bottles and cans would be stored.”
Costs for retailers include labor to manage the bins and keep store areas clean, particularly among food products, Drumm said.
She added that the Retailers Association would support repealing the bottle deposit law in favor of a “single, convenient stream for recycling” that ideally would include curbside pickups or rural drop-off sites, along with an education campaign.
Hammond recognizes retailers’ concerns, and points to provisions in the bills that increase escheats — or unclaimed deposits that go back to the state — going back to retailers and distributors to manage the system.
“We think this is overall a benefit for Michigan,” he said, adding that expanding the number of containers accepted also increases foot traffic in these stores and redemption centers. “We understand this is a burden on retailers, but we see the increased escheats going to them as compensation to offset the cost.”
A comprehensive recycling plan
While a bottle bill expansion narrowly targets single-use containers, advocates on both sides of the issue — as well as state officials — see the need for a more comprehensive plan to boost recycling rates.
In his 2018 State of the State speech, former Gov. Rick Snyder said the unsuccessful effort to double the state’s recycling rate during his eight years in office “has probably been one of the most disappointing initiatives I’ve had in my time as governor.”
Since then, the state has allocated $15 million for recycling under the Renew Michigan program. A portion of that funding has gone toward a statewide marketing campaign featuring “recycling raccoons,” educating residents on how and what to recycle. A multi-year stakeholder effort has looked at rewriting the state’s solid waste laws, while Whitmer signed an executive order in September that includes a recycling focus at state facilities.
“Now we’re looking to up our game and increase recycling for all materials, increase access and participation in curbside and drop-off programs so all materials make their way into new products,” Flechter said.
Meanwhile, communities across the state are struggling to maintain recycling programs, cutting back collection days, limiting materials accepted and closing recycling facilities in an effort to save money. China’s move to limit the type of recyclable material it imports from the U.S. has left communities with less revenue.
In early 2019, a recycling center in Muskegon closed, leaving residents without a monthly curbside collection bin to drive to Holland to drop off recyclables. Battle Creek officials also signed a new contract with Waste Management a year ago that switched to biweekly collection. Stories like these persist across the state.
“If we want to fix the recycling rate in Michigan, we really need to start thinking about the cost of landfilling and how we’ve incentivized landfilling over the years,” Hammond said. “With the cheapest landfill rates in the country, recycling can’t compete.”
Removing incentives to landfilling waste means “starting to deal with the externalities of burying trash forever,” he said, adding that it remains “very easy to expand landfills in Michigan.”
However, some communities are getting more creative. Emmet County, for example, has sought local buyers for its recycled material to shield it from global market pressures. Hammond also named Kent County and portions of Oakland County as leaders.
“They’re all having to be extraordinarily creative because of how bad the commodities markets are now,” he said. “We never bothered to develop recycling processing in the state or U.S. as a whole.”