Opinion | Blaming deposits on low recycling is idea that should be trashed

Sean Hammond is deputy policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council

Nov. 30, 2018: This Michigan lawmaker is pushing a bill that will save his business $9,000

In a recent guest column, “Michigan recycling efforts dragged down by unfair deposit law,” the Michigan Recycling Partnership claimed the deposit law is a hindrance to recycling in Michigan. In fact—quite unintentionally—it contributed to the development of Michigan’s current recycling system.

The article also inadvertently gets to the heart of the recycling problem by referring to the bottles and cans we take back as “trash.” This is the real problem with recycling in Michigan: we don't recognize that the things we discard have value, and to extract that value we have to invest in recycling.


The partnership, which is a task force of retailers, grocers and bottlers, uses the lack of a bottle bill in other states to try to explain why those states have a higher rate of recycling than Michigan. It’s a sticky point of comparison, considering that Minnesota has recently explored a bottle bill to kickstart its plateauing program. A better comparison is to look at the amount of funding these states dedicate to recycling compared to Michigan. As a state, we invest under $1 million dollars annually with our local governments to support recycling. In contrast, Wisconsin invests $19 million with local governments, and Minnesota invests about $17 million per year.  A strong case can be made that the difference in investment drives the difference in recycling rates.

Access to recycling opportunities was identified by the Governor’s Recycling Council as the key to recycling growth. Access happens at the local level. Adding “value” to the recycling stream by eliminating the deposit law does nothing to improve our rate of recycling, especially if waste disposal continues to be the default.  It’s also a problematic assumption itself because the increase in glass would add costs. Updating Michigan materials management laws to eliminate the focus on waste disposal and instead fund initiatives that support the growth of recycling programs across the state will go a long way to balance any policy-created market inequities.

Every business, household, and institution in Michigan generates waste, and local governments are often left bearing the costs of managing it. We currently have a solution on the table to fix our waste problem and our clean up problem: a $4.44 tipping fee on all landfill waste. That would invest more than $20 million per year into recycling and truly grow our statewide rate to the benefit of Michigan's economy and environment.

The bottle bill is not about recycling, and it never was nor should it be. It's about preventing pollution from reaching our lakes and streams. The United Kingdom, with the support of Coca-Cola, has just started implementing a container deposit plan to help curb ocean plastic pollution. Clearly, not everyone agrees with the notion that deposit laws are the problem.

There is no correlation between having (or not having) a deposit law and being successful at recycling, and five of the top 10 states for recycling have a deposit law. Nine out of 10 Michigan residents support the bottle bill, and there are many solutions to Michigan’s recycling problems on the table right now.

Let's not latch on to the one that would put our lakes and streams in the crosshairs of pollution.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this guest commentary didn't accurately represent a study about the costs and benefits of Michigan's bottle deposit law. The commentary has been edited to remove the reference to the study.

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John Tiemstra
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 8:36am

The wording of the headline is wrong. It should be "Blaming deposits for low recycling..."

Mike Watza
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 8:59am

Thanks for supporting our bottle return laws and more recycling investment, not less.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 11:48am

I'm curious, exactly how much has Mr. Hammond and/or the MEC personally given to these businesses so that they can set aside employees and equipment to handle processing all of these bottles and cans?

How much does he and/or the MEC propose spending to offset the increase of trash pickup for everyone else living in Michigan?

I must have missed those parts in his piece above?

Spending other people's money is incredibly easy.

When it's your very own, not so much.

Kevin R
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 2:31pm

Not sure I understand your comments. Mr. Hammond is making the case that there is no correlation between states with bottle bills and the amount of recycling that is done in these states. He states that of the top 10 states in recycling in the U.S., 5 of them have bottle bills. In fact, he states that 90% of MI residents currently favor the bottle bill. His argument is that the common denominator between states with high recycling rates and those with low recycling rates seems to be the level of investment on the part of the states to promote recycling programs.

Further, why are you asking for increased funding from outside sources to help the retail vendors accept returnables? This is a practice that has been going on for years and most have already made the necessary adjustments. Further, every time a person brings in returnables to that retail vendor that store now has a captive customer, often there to make additional purchases. And if you think these retailers haven't been taking advantage of this fact you are crazy. In fact, it would be interesting to know how many of those refund receipts are spent immediately back in that retail outlet.

I am not sure I understand this comment:
How much does he and/or the MEC propose spending to offset the increase of trash pickup for everyone else living in Michigan?

Are you asking who will pay for the increase of "trash" pickup if the bottle bill continues? It seems to me that the bottle bill helps to reduce the amount of trash pickup, not increase it.

Bottom line, the state of MI grossly underspends when it comes to recycling efforts. If we as a state want to see increased recycling rates then we as a state need to spend more to support it.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 05/16/2018 - 1:38pm

I'm not 100% sure which direction you're going, Kevin?

At one point, you're telling me that retailers have no direct costs to their bottom line as it relates to Michigan's deposit law (I'm certain that those bottle/can machines were the very same ones in use back in the 70's), yet on the other hand you're telling me that they have already paid it and are further recouping that costs by "captive customers".

Which is it?

And since when did it ever become a function of state government to get into the recycling?

If you want to see higher recycling rates, then please feel free to open up your own wallet and invest your own money into the next big thing in recycling. I'm certain that if you make the right choice, your investment will pay off.

But to go out and essentially DEMAND that I pay more for something, just because you think that I should...well, that's not going to happen.

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 1:58pm

I've seen the big difference between states with and without deposits. I wonder if the current amounts are high enough, a dime 30 years ago vs today? Glass bottles should be higher!! How about 25 and 50 cents for glass? To Kevin's point, shouldn't stores put the costs for handling bottles into the beverage costs that buyers of these products pay? Basically a user fee. That doesn't really bother my free market sensibilities as much as my taxes going to pick trash up off the roads.

Kevin Grand
Wed, 05/16/2018 - 1:53pm

The amount of trash we see vs. the level of taxes we pay is a false dichotomy promoted by those wanting to advance mandatory recycling.

All one needs to do in order to see this is travel down south to see how they deal with the problems with trash along their roads and highways.

They use probationers or low-risk inmates to pick up the trash. Here's a vest, here's a trash bag, pick up everything you see on the ground for the next two or three miles.

In all fairness, we do have that up here (usually under the name of community work programs), but they are used so scarcely that they practically have no visible effect.

Tue, 05/15/2018 - 2:55pm

Bill VanderMolen If we are going to do a state standardization, then make curbside recycling the same for everyone. And what I mean by curbside, is along with the normal refuge barrel, provide a LARGE recycle barrel that is a one-container all glass, metal, and paper.

Our township does it this way and we recycle everything that can be recycle. Why? Well because we should, but..mostly I believe because it is incredibly easy. One would have to go out of ones way to not recycle with this set up.

If everyone had it this way, there would be no need or desire to drive to the store with smelly bottles to push them to the back of the store, fight a machine that won't take them all (even ones bought there), and collect 90% of the total deposit.

Make recycling ...
Tue, 05/15/2018 - 4:48pm

The previous article absolutely agrees with increasing funding at the local level for expanded curbside and recycling centers. And speaking to value, aluminum has the most value out of all the recyclable materials! We should put it back into curbside carts to help fund the expansion.

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 7:46am

Just to give some technical background on materials recycling:

The only materials that are economically viable for recycling are corrugated cardboard and metals. Kraft cardboard is less processed than refined papers and has better fiber quality that survives repulping. Glossy papers, flyers, advertisements all simply provide lower qualty feedstock and are less desirable in most paper recycling facilities. Industry already recycles the vast majority of corrugated paper. Glass (by color) and other materials need to be hand sorted on the input stream, and no matter how little you pay those sorters, it is not viable.

Metals are viable recycling materials, especially aluminum. In states where there is no container laws, there is economic incentive to collect aluminum (cans are compactable and do not absorb water weight). Iron can be extracted from the waste stream magnetically. Other metals are in trace amounts in the typical municipal waste stream, copper, brass and are again incentived (sic).

Municipal incinerator operators prefer a higher plastic content in the waste stream, which generated higher heat output, and does not absorb water as paper does. Paper is still the largest fraction of a given municipal waste stream. The emitted chlorine compounds (dioxins and furans) remains a public concern, however, the concern may be more appropriately directed toward the use of chlorine-containing plastics (PVC-pthalates) . Soap bottles come to mind. ("Avoid products with the number 3 within the arrows and the
letters “V” or “PVC” below the arrows.")

The compromises that allow certain drinks to be packaged in non-deposit containers seems kind of silly to me, but I realize many people in Michigan still have a self-destructive anti-environmental attitude, so the bottle deposit penalty is something to hang onto until those people grow up.

Wed, 05/16/2018 - 8:53am

Interesting comments from someone with a background in packaging. Can packaging be modified to make it more viable for recycling? Or is there just so little value involved that the reverse distribution makes the process uneconomical, beyond providing an incentive not to throw it out the window?