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Issues Of The Environment: Lack Of Can & Bottle Returns During Pandemic May Lead To Price Increases

Jun 10, 2020

Container filled with empty cans and bottles.
Credit Marco Verch / flickr.com

When COVID-19 hit, Michigan almost immediately halted can and bottle returns.  Not only has it had an impact on local grocers and big box chain stores, it has affected recycling waste management and the companies that make cans and bottles.  Returns are now allowed again, but the ripple effect may last a while.  WEMU's David Fair has a conversation with Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability for the Can Manfacturers Institute, about the potential impact this will have on our environment and economy for this week's "Issues of the Environment."


Overview

  • Effective immediately (June 1, 2020), Michigan stores can start accepting bottle and can returns.  Among 10 states with return programs, Michigan was the only state to completely shut down its program due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • According to the Associated Press, every week of the shutdown, an estimated 70 million cans and bottles went unredeemed.  MLive reports, “Michiganders are sitting on about 500 million returnable cans worth $50 million.  Beer, pop and other bottles and cans with 10-cent deposits have been accumulating since late March when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered stores to stop redemption amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.”
  • It may take up to 25 weeks for processing companies to reach pre-pandemic levels of processing, and the can and bottle industries in Michigan are warning that a dearth of recycled material that is needed to make beverage containers might cause increased production costs.  Cost would likely be passed to consumers, says the Associated Press.
  • Scott Breen, Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI)’s Vice President of Sustainability, says consumer returns are essential to the supply chain of many beverages and canned goods, items which consumers purchased in record quantities during the pandemic.  The Can Manufacturers Institute, the Glass Packaging Institute, and National Association for PET Container Resources are helping deposit states make clear to their residents that the deposit system is still in place 

Cans and Bottles Not Returned During COVID-19 Shutdown

Michiganders are sitting on about 500 million returnable cans worth $50 million.  Beer, pop and other bottles and cans with 10-cent deposits have been accumulating since late March when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered stores to stop redemption amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of recycled material to make beverage containers could lead to increased production costs, and those cost would likely be passed onto consumers, the Associate Press reports.

It is estimated that the number grows by 70 million unredeemed cans and bottles a week, the report said.  It could take 20-25 weeks for processing companies to dig themselves out of the backlog when deposit redemption resumes.

Michigan is a top performer when it comes to can and bottle returns, redeeming 89% of deposits in 2018; that was down from over 90% every year prior.  Among 10 states with return programs, Michigan is the only one to completely shut down its program due to the pandemic.

An aluminum beer or pop can is made of 73% recycled content, with 43% of that coming from recycled beverage cans.  Without cans coming back, producers will be forced to use new metal, which is more expensive, the report said. The same goes for glass bottle production – it's more expensive the first time around.

The stay-home order issued by Whitmer on March 23 kept grocery and convenience stores open but halted can and bottle return services since they were not considered essential.  Chain stores and retailer associations lobbied for the pause protect employees from coronavirus, the report said.

Now, companies involved in processing those cans and bottles are lobbying a phased resumption of returns that could use reverse vending machines, limited hours, social distancing requirements and per person return limits, the report said. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.mlive.com/news/2020/05/michiganders-pile-up-50m-in-unredeemed-can-bottle-deposits.html)

Returns can Resume June 1st

Michigan stores can start accepting bottle and can returns, effective immediately, according to state officials.  Bottle and can returns have been shut down in Michigan due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

All supermarkets with bottle return machines are required to start accepting returns by June 15, but the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced Friday that stores can start doing so immediately.

Since residents are likely storing a high number of cans and bottles during the pandemic, stores might have restrictions on returns.  Customers should check with stores before returning bottles or cans, EGLE officials said.

Here are some steps companies could take to help with the influx of returns:

  • Limit the number of containers that may be returned by a single person per day to a deposit refund amount of $25.
  • Establish special or limited hours of operation for bottle returns.
  • Limit the number of available and operating reverse vending machines.
  • Periodically close bottle deposit facilities as needed for cleaning and supply management.
  • Implement other procedures or restrictions as necessary to keep the process safe and/or efficient.

Customers are asked to keep a distance of at least six feet and wear masks while returning bottles. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/local/2020/06/05/michigan-stores-can-start-accepting-bottle-can-returns-immediately/)

Fifty million dollars is a whole lot of dimes.  That's how much Michigan residents hold in beer, pop, and other bottles and cans with 10-cent deposits accumulated since late March, when an emergency order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stopped redemption at supermarkets and other stores because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

That number grows by 70 million unredeemed cans and bottles a week, said Tom Emmerich, chief operating officer of Schupan & Sons Recycling. The company, with processing facilities in Wixom and Wyoming, processes aluminum cans and plastic and glass bottles from Michigan's beer and pop distributors, who in turn pick them up from the supermarkets, party stores, gas stations and other places where people redeem their 10-cent deposits. "Consumers are not putting these containers at curbside, they're not throwing them away — yet," he said.

"We also know there are a tremendous number of charities who are working with different communities to collect deposit containers until the stores start taking them back."

Schupan and Sons typically processes about 160 million cans, 100 million plastic bottles and 100 million glass bottles per month, Emmerich said.  That has ground to a halt under Whitmer's COVID-19 order. It has left the industries reliant on Michigan's recycled containers — especially can and bottle-makers — scrambling to find other supplies, including more expensive, non-recycled material, or glass that takes more energy to produce a first time than it does a second or subsequent time. 

No one has a bigger stake in when bottle and can deposit redemption can resume than Marc Schupan.  The CEO of Schupan & Sons is also a principal in UBCR LLC, the company that collects, transports, and processes empty beverage containers for Michigan’s largest retailers, and TOMRA, the company providing reverse vending machines to take back bottles and cans at larger stores.

"I understand the governor is trying to protect us," he said.  "But bottle and can returns absolutely can be done safely.  And we're the only state right now that isn't redeeming."  Those bottles and cans piling up in people's closets, garages and sheds aren't going away.  They will ultimately have to be processed, and that can't happen all at once, Emmerich said.  "We're probably looking at 20 to 25 weeks to dig ourselves out of this issue," he said.

Messages left with Whitmer's office by the Free Press were not returned.  Whitmer's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order March 23 declared that while grocery and convenience stores would remain open, bottle return services within them were not considered critical infrastructure. Large store chains and retailers associations had appealed to stop bottle and can redemption to help protect their employees from COVID-19.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is spread from person to person in close contact via inhaled respiratory droplets. While "transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented," recent studies indicate the virus can live on surfaces for hours or even days.

Ten U.S. states have bottle and can deposit programs: Michigan, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, and Vermont.  Amid COVID-19, every state has allowed retailers or collection facilities the right to limit or stop bottle and can returns without penalty, and some states reduced the number of collection sites.  "Michigan is kind of unique in shutting down its entire redemption system," said Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability for the Can Manufacturers Institute, a trade organization for companies making aluminum beverage and steel food cans, big users of recycled aluminum.

An aluminum beer or pop can is made of 73% recycled content, with 43% of that coming from recycled beverage cans, Breen said.  "We rely on getting those used beverage cans back, so we can keep that high recycled content," he said.  "Forty percent of the cans we recycle nationally, we get from those 10 states (with deposits)."

The more a company reliant on recycled aluminum has to use new metal, "it just raises the cost ... it just gets passed on to the public," Schupan said.

It's a similar story for glass bottle and jar manufacturers.

"From our perspective, Michigan is a key supply state" of recycled bottles, said Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, a trade association representing glass container manufacturers in North America.  "The quality of the material is high — it's needed for production. Now that we've had time to adjust to a new normal, it's clear that the material itself is not the risk here. Just like any other commercial enterprise, it's practicing the social distancing, adhering to the public health guidelines, pacing, spacing."

Michigan is typically a bottle and can recycling star, ranking third behind only much more populous California and New York.  That's attributable to two key aspects of the state's program: its 10 cents per bottle or can deposit, much higher than most states' nickel or pennies in redemption value, and one of the most simple return systems in the country for consumers, allowing people to take their returnables not to a recycling site but to the store where they purchased them.

Michigan returned more than 90% of its deposit bottles and cans for recycling every year until 2018, when the number dipped to 89%.  Total refunds in Michigan have ranged from $346 million to $425 million per year since 2000, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.

The state Treasury Department collects unclaimed deposits, known as escheat, with 75% of the money going to the state's Cleanup and Redevelopment Trust Fund and the other 25% returned to retailers. Michigan had a record $42.8 million in escheat in 2018 — and that number could soar this year if people running out of space to store bottles and cans during the coronavirus redemption ban give up and begin disposing of them in the trash or curbside recycling. "The deposit money building up in Michigan could be used to modernize Michigan's deposit system with no-touch options in the form of RVMs (reverse vending machines)," which are safer for those taking the returnables, said Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate who has researched bottle and can deposit programs for the nonprofit ConsumerWatchdog.org, based in Santa Monica, California.

"This would be a positive use of consumer money at a time when deposits have literally become a de facto tax."  Reverse vending machines are often found in chain stores such as Walmart, Kroger and Meijer. A customer inserts bottles and cans into a machine, which scans their bar code to ensure they are eligible for the Michigan 10-cent deposit refund.  The cans and bottles then fall into bins, and the customer receives a printed receipt redeemable in the store.  When a wheeled bin is full, a store employee moves it out of the machine to a holding area.  When enough bins are ready for collection, a semi-trailer truck hauls them away, Schupan said.

"As far as coronavirus goes, it's a lot more dangerous for a store employee to stock shelves than to deal with RVM machines," he said.

Schupan's companies, along with the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association and Michigan Soft Drink Association, have proposed to the governor's office a phased-in resumption of bottle and can redemption that would start at the largest chain stores with reverse vending machines.  "Retailers, particularly in this first phase, have to be allowed to mitigate the flow of containers through their store in a safe, orderly fashion," Emmerich said.  "They have to be able to set limited hours, enforce social distancing requirements, have the ability to limit the number of containers anyone can redeem at one time."

Redemption could be further opened up to smaller stores with less automated systems over time, until when coronavirus concerns are lessened and the recycling system is caught up and "everything goes back to normal," he said.  Some discussion has occurred with representatives in the governor's office since the group's restart plan was submitted in April, but no plans have yet been worked out, Emmerich said.

State Rep. Joe Bellino, R-Monroe, has a unique perspective on can and bottle returns.  He grew up in his family's beer and wine distributorship business, and he presently owns a party store in Monroe.  "If we're going to shut businesses down, and we're going to hurt the economy because we don't want people to die, this" stoppage of bottle and can returns at stores "has to be included," he said.  "But people are getting antsy — they want to know when they can bring them back."

Bellino is not a fan of Michigan's deposit law.  He introduced a bill last fall to do away with the program, that didn't gain traction.  "We suck at recycling as a whole, yet everybody thinks they are God's gift to recycling because they take their bottles and cans back to the store," he said.

Michigan's overall recycling rate is 15%, half of the national average.  Bellino noted that aluminum is by far the most valuable item found in recycled materials — "there's no money in the glass, the paper and the cardboard."  In states without bottle laws, cans are in the mix of recycled materials, and help generate funds to expand recycling programs overall.  In Michigan, they stay in the the deposit redemption loop.

"If you want to be good at recycling in Michigan, something's got to happen.  And it's not the bottle bill," he said. Schupan said he has continued to pay the idled workers at his Wixom and Wyoming facilities since the cans and bottles stopped flowing in late March."We need to get back to some sense of normalcy, and do it in a safe, efficient way," he said.  "We'll be working three shifts, around the clock, to help catch up.  But we can do it."(Source: *directly quoted* https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/18/michigan-bottle-returns-open-closed/5194368002/)

Cans are Forever Recyclable 

Metal cans are produced with abundant and recycled materials, minimizing the depletion of natural resources.  Steel and aluminum cans are the nation’s most recycled food and beverage containers.  In the United States, a staggering 105,784 aluminum cans and 20,000 steel cans are recycled every minute. Completely and endlessly recyclable, metal cans are far and away the nation’s most recycled food and beverage containers.  The result of all that recycling?  Less pollution, reduced costs and a steady supply of resources for years to come—the very definition of sustainability.

Get Your Green On

The benefits of recycling go far beyond just keeping waste out of the landfill. Recycling can also:

  • Conserve resources for the future
  • Save energy
  • Supply valuable raw materials to industry
  • Create jobs
  • Stimulate the development of greener technologies
  • Reduce the need for new landfills and incinerators

You CAN Make a Difference

If you don’t think of your empty soda and food cans as a natural resource, you should. Every year Americans send 45 billion aluminum cans to the landfill. That’s the equivalent of eleven 12-packs per person. The scrap value of all of these cans is enormous--$800 million. In addition to the economic loss, it’s a missed opportunity for significant environmental savings. Making a steel food can from recycled material involves using 75 percent energy less than making a new steel food can from virgin material. Similarly, the energy savings from making an aluminum beverage can is more than 90 percent compared to making a new aluminum beverage can from virgin material.

What to Do With Beverage Containers in Deposit States During Coronavirus

The Can Manufacturers Institute, the Glass Packaging Institute, and National Association for PET Container Resources are helping deposit states make clear to their residents that the deposit system is still in place and this document gives recommendations for what deposit state residents should consider doing with their beverage containers during this crisis so that they do not go to the landfill. (*directly quoted* http://www.cancentral.com/recycling-sustainability/sustainability)

The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI)

The Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI) is the national trade association of the metal can manufacturing industry and its suppliers in the United States.  The can industry accounts for the annual domestic production of approximately 119 billion food, beverage and general line cans; which employs more than 28,000 people with plants in 33 states, Puerto Rico and American Samoa; and generates about $17.8 billion in direct economic activity.  CMI members are committed to providing safe, nutritious and refreshing canned food and beverages to consumers. (Source: *directly quoted* http://www.cancentral.com/media/news/can-manufacturing-%E2%80%9Ccritical-or-essential-business%E2%80%9D-during-pandemic)

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu