Naida: Deposit law bottles up recycling efforts

Mark Naida
The Detroit News

Unlike many states, Michigan’s roads and waterways are not festooned with pop cans and beer bottles. The comparative cleanness of our public spaces is a direct result of the passage of Michigan’s bottle deposit law in 1976.

What began as an anti-littering measure has become an overwhelmingly popular recycling policy.

But after more than 40 years of regularly returning more than 90 percent of bottles and cans, Michigan remains one of of the worst states for recycling in the nation.

Michigan only recycles 15 percent of all possible materials, compared with a national average of 35 percent.

The bottle deposit, which covers only 2 percent of recyclable waste, deserves at least part of the blame.

The bottle deposit law created a two-stream recycling system for Michigan: Aluminum cans, glass bottles, and some PET plastics are recycled by grocery stores and bottling companies. All else is taken care of by local recycling companies, which only two-thirds of Michigan residents have access to, according to a survey by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

A recent bill package introduced by state Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, has been referred to the Michigan Competitiveness Committee for consideration. The bills would repeal the bottle deposit law in the hope that aluminum and PET plastic (the harder kind used for soda bottles) would be used to help fund community recycling efforts. Blame for low recycling access likely rests on recycling centers not having the high value materials available due to the bottle deposit law. Without these materials, it is hard to turn a profit without an influx of state tax money.

Though market prices fluctuate constantly, cardboard, the most commonly recycled material, fetches around $100 per ton. Aluminum, on the other hand, can be sold for much more.

If a local recycling center is trying to pay for its overhead and its employees, it needs these high-value materials to help fund the collection of low-value materials like paper products.

“We are not incentivized to have curbside recycling," Bellino says. “There is just nothing valuable in the recycling bins.”

Having part of our recycling collection done by bottlers and grocers costs those businesses $100 million annually, according to a Public Sector Consultants study. In 1976, this editorial board opposed the law because of the fear it would place too much of a burden on retailers.

Bellino knows the hassle: He owns a party store and has to deal regularly with the added cost and inefficiency of bottle returns.

In February, Rep Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, introduced a bill that would add water and all carbonated and non-carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages except milk to the list of containers with a 10-cent deposit. Yet it still wouldn’t account for a sizable chunk of recyclable material.

And doubling down on the deposit law and applying it to all products simply wouldn't work. It would be difficult to extend the deposit to prolific products such as cardboard, which comes from a variety of sources and companies (think Amazon). 

What does work is a single-stream recycling system where all recyclables are left at the side of the road in a bin for a local recycling center to process.

FILE -- Alex Goecke, of Royal Oak, returns beer cans and bottles before shopping at Holiday Market in Royal Oak.

Though this system may have some upstart costs with new bins, collection facilities and trucks, Gov. Rick Snyder is fighting for an increase in trash hauler tipping fees which would generate $15 million for recycling programs in Michigan.

Kerrin O’Brien, executive director of Michigan Recycling Coalition, says she is excited about the governor’s efforts to jumpstart recycling.

We want to keep Michigan's roadsides looking beautiful, but given the impact on overall recycling, the Legislature should re-think whether the bottle deposit law is helping or hindering that goal.