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Michigan bottle returns fall after COVID, prompting get-tough push on grocers

 Aluminum cans and bottles are pressed into bricks of recyclable material, waiting to be shipped and formed into new beverage containers
Michigan’s bottle return rate has plummeted since the COVID-19 pandemic. Some argue that’s because retailers are making it inconvenient to bring them back. (Bridge photo by Ashley Zhou)
  • Bottle return rates have plummeted in Michigan since COVID-19 pandemic
  • Democrats want to require stores to take bottle returns throughout the day
  • Retailers oppose the plan, citing sanitation and staffing concerns

LANSING — As fewer Michigan residents opt in to the state’s bottle deposit program, lawmakers are proposing a possible solution: outlawing store restrictions on returning bottles and cans.

Michigan is tied with Oregon for the highest bottle deposit in the country, charging 10 cent deposits per eligible bottle and can at point of purchase to incentivize recycling. 

Passed by voters in 1976, the state’s bottle return law for decades prompted high recycling rates, hitting 89% in 2019. Rates dropped during a complete system shutdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t recovered, falling to 75.6% in 2022.


Some lawmakers suspect part of the problem is that many retailers never fully restored their return operations, setting limits on returnables or failing to replace broken machines. 


“This is a real concern…where stores will sell you products, but they will not take them back,” Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, said Tuesday during a House Regulatory Reform Committee hearing. “It started with COVID, but now we’ve ballooned to a ridiculous amount of folks that will not take them back.” 

Legislation under consideration in the state House would require bottle return operators to keep facilities open during usual operating hours or between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., whichever is greater.

Industry statistics indicate that Michigan’s redemption rate exceeds most states with deposit laws, with 70% of cans being returned in California and New York and just 38% in Massachusetts. 

Oregon, which requires retailers to accept returnables during normal business hours, has overtaken Michigan as the redemption rate leader, posting an 88.5% return in 2022, said Susan Collins, president of the California-based Container Recycling Institute. 

Less than a quarter of bottles are returned in states without deposit laws. 

Jerry Griffin, vice president of government affairs for the Midwest Independent Retailers Association, told lawmakers that consumers may simply be tired of carting bottles and cans to the store, advocating for a one-size-fits-all recycling program encouraging people to put their returnables in the recycling bin.

“There is a lot of fatigue out there,” Griffin said. “To suggest that that's only because a certain handful of small business retailers are limiting hours for people to bring things back, I think, is ignoring a larger question at hand.”

Rep. Julie Rogers, a Kalamazoo Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said the state needs a statewide standard.

During spot checks in her district, Rogers said she found retailers who don’t accept returns on Sundays, long-broken machines, limits on total returnables and short time windows for returns.

“These restrictions are all significant — for working people, one would need a spreadsheet to navigate the individual stores’ self-designated rules,” Rogers said. “All the stores would willingly sell me the soda, but many would not let me take back those very same cans.”

But retailers balked at the idea of a uniform mandate, noting that many small stores don’t have the staff or the storage capacity to collect the glass and cans that customers bring back all day. 


Others said the sanitary concerns can’t be ignored. Rep. Matthew Bierlein, R-Vassar, suggested it’s unfair to require stores without machines to find ways to store “stinky, wet, gross cans.”

The bill remains pending before the House Regulatory Reform Committee as lawmakers consider the implications and suggest changes. Fellow legislative Democrats suggested tweaks like allowing stores to stop collecting returnables 30 minutes before closing and providing some exceptions for when a store’s machines are legitimately broken. 

Rep. Will Snyder, D-Muskegon, found fault with the bill’s lack of enforcement options if stores weren’t following the rules. 

Because the state’s bottle deposit law was approved by voters via ballot initiative, any changes to the policy would need a three-quarters majority in both chambers of the Legislature. That would require significant bipartisan support, as the House is currently tied and Senate Democrats hold a slim two-seat majority.

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