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Is it time to fix the bottle deposit law?

Close up of automatic reverse vending machine for collecting and
Aleksej - stock.adobe.com
Shoppers return their bottles and cans of reusable packagings in a reverse vending machine.

Some environmentalists want the new legislature to change Michigan’s bottle deposit law.

Recently, a Detroit News story by Chad Livengood outlined some of the major problems the container deposit law causes for retailers and distributors who have to handle the returned bottles and cans. Besides the hassle and cost, a major complaint is how dirty the bottles are.

“You are not supposed to return dirty bottles and cans. You're supposed to clean them up and rinse them out. But who knows that if we don't market it?” asked Conan Smith who leads the Michigan Environmental Council.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Michigan has one of the highest bottle deposit costs, but since the pandemic, the rate of return has fallen.

He said there are improvements that could be made if the deposit was separate from funding the operations of returning the bottles. Right now, grocers and other retailers get a 25% share of the deposits of bottles that are not returned by consumers. The rest goes to the State of Michigan’s Cleanup and Redevelopment Trust Fund.

Smith said the way the law reimburses retailers is flawed. He wants something more reliable.

“Essentially it's an excise tax of a penny or two pennies on every can or bottle. And that allows us to fund the retailers for the services they provide in helping us return those bottles.”

He suggested such a “handling fee” could be used to make the bottle bill more effective.

“We can fund the system, but we can also market the system. So when we talk about problems with consumers, for example, bringing a dirty bottle back and creating an unhealthy space inside the retailers, well, hey, that's actually against the law, the current law,” Conan said.

He says in some other states and countries an excise tax is used by retailers, bottlers, and distributors to set up an independent nonprofit to make sure the system works. Then, the businesses have a vested interest in its success.

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Michigan's 1976 bottle deposit law does not include bottles and cans of non-carbonated beverages such as water and sports drinks.

Smith also wants the bottle bill to expand to other beverage containers that were not even on the scene back in the 1976.

“When the bottle bill was first passed, we didn't drink water from bottles. And now bottled water accounts for anywhere between 40 and 50% of the beverage marketplace. Back then, we didn't have sports drinks, and now we do,” Smith said.

He believes that will put a lot more plastic back into use that is now too often going to a landfill.

While the pandemic reduced the percentage of containers that are returned, the quantity of bottles and cans that are brought back to get that ten cent deposit back is far greater than any voluntary curbside recycling effort.

Here is a record of bottle deposit data from 1990-2019 and other frequently asked questions about the bottle law.

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated a portion of the unclaimed deposits also went to distributors. That is incorrect. The story has been updated to reflect that.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Radio from 1998-2010.
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