Finley: Keep Michigan pure with water bottle deposits

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

The morning after Michigan voters passed the bottle deposit law in 1976, I was sorting mail in the newsroom of The Detroit News.

As a copy boy, that was generally my quiet time. Except for a few reporters sleeping off drunks, it was usually just me and a handful of early morning editors.

The calm broke with the slap of a newspaper hitting the city desk. I looked up to see a clearly agitated Martin Hayden, the legendary editor of The News, standing over a previously dozing Jim Kerwin, the reporter who covered the deposit campaign.

“Well, I hope you’re satisfied, Jim,” the boss snarled. “You got your damn bottle deposit.”

Kerwin, as disheveled as Hayden was perfectly pressed, opened one eye and said, “Well thank you, Martin. I am.”

The News had been opposed to the bottle measure on its editorial page, but Kerwin had given it a favorable ride in his news-side reporting.

The reason for the paper’s official opposition was the fear that requiring a deposit on soda and beer cans and bottles would overwhelm retailers who would have to manage collecting and refunding the deposit and sorting and storing the containers.

Forty-two years later, that’s still a pain in the rear for store owners.

But no one who has traveled in states without a deposit law can argue against its benefits. In Michigan, between 95 and 98 percent of soda and beer bottles and cans are returned for recycling.

That means millions of containers are not ending up in landfills, and more importantly, aren’t littering our roadsides, parks and beaches.

It’s rare to see a discarded drink can or bottle here. If the original purchaser doesn’t return it to claim the deposit, someone else looking to pocket the dime will.

But what you do see nearly everywhere are empty water bottles. The deposit doesn’t apply to water bottles — nor to juice or other specialty drink containers — but perhaps it should.

Consumer tastes have changed since 1976. Last year for the first time Americans consumed more bottled water than soft drinks, an average of 39.3 gallons each compared to 38.5 gallons.

That amounts to a lot of plastic water containers headed to landfills, or worse, tossed carelessly on the ground.

Extending the deposit law to cover water bottles could provide the same motivation for responsibly recycling the containers and improving the looks of Michigan’s outdoor spaces.

A measure to do so has been proposed in the Legislature by Rep. John Hoadley, a Kalamazoo Democrat. Similar efforts have been attempted many times over the years, but have been rebuffed by retailers who are still concerned about the costs and hassle.

And that remains a fair complaint. Any mandate to cover water bottles with the deposit should include more compensation for retailers, who receive 25 percent of the revenue gleaned from unclaimed deposits. Perhaps the law should up that to 50 percent to give stores the resources needed to add storage space and sorting machines.

But the success of the soda deposit law in adding to the purity of Michigan’s landscape is too impressive not to at least explore whether it could help ease the unsightly litter from a new generation of drink containers.

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.