Proposed Deposit Law Change Sets Stage for Future

More than 25 years ago, the nation's first bottle deposit laws were passed in Michigan. The initiative was petition-driven, with residents expressing their support at the polls.

Since that time, nine other states have adopted similar legislation. In "container states," retailers of beer, malt beverages, soft drinks and wine coolers charge a deposit fee on containers of one gallon in size or less. These fees range from as little as a few cents each to as much as $.10 per container.

Consumers eventually grew accustomed to carbonated beverages costing a bit more. For most, redemption of empty containers became part of the shopping experience.

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Popular noncarbonated drinks are included under the proposed expansion of Michigan's bottle deposit law.

The original focus of container deposit laws was to reduce litter and by that measure, few can dispute the laws have worked. In states with deposit laws, roadside litter has been reduced considerably. In Michigan, where it all began, it is estimated that 98.4% of all containers covered by the original bill are currently recycled.

Iowa, which is said to mean "beautiful land," shows favorable results as well. There, 95% of all aluminum cans are recycled under the state's container deposit bill passed over 20 years ago.

As an added benefit, landfills in container states no longer host the hundreds of millions of cans and bottles that recycling keeps from entering the waste stream. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 3 million tons of bottles and cans are currently recycled in the U.S. every year. The Container Recycling Institute estimates that figure would easily double if the remaining 40 states enacted similar deposit return systems.

But while container laws have reduced litter, and recycled millions of tons of aluminum and glass, some are beginning to question if the laws are in tune with the times. Tastes have changed and people are consuming more bottled water, sports drinks, juices and teas today. The original laws addressed only carbonated beverages of one gallon or less. Few of the drinks gaining popularity now are included under the scope of the original deposit laws.

No deposit - no return

With little incentive to recycle, these non-carbonated drink containers are showing up more and more along roadways across the country.

In response to this growing trend, a Senate committee - the Michigan Beverage Container and Recycling Task Force - has been studying the impact of expanding the original law in Michigan to include containers of today's more popular drinks. Variations of the expanded bill have been proposed in several sessions of Michigan legislature, each with differing scopes. Even milk containers have been included in some versions of the bill for consideration.

Amanda Hathaway, Public Relations Manager for Michigan United Conservation Clubs, originators of the bottle bill in Michigan observes, "Some of the beverage containers affected by the proposed change include juice, tea, and other non-carbonated drinks. On average, a person consumes about 100 of these beverages per year. Assuming recycling rates for these containers would be similar to those under the current deposit law, Michigan could prevent an additional 664 million containers from heading to state landfills and incinerators every year."

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm supports the expansion of the bill. She sees the measure as a catalyst in boosting Michigan's recycling rate to 40% over the next five years. Dana Debel, environmental advisor to Governor Granholm said, "Expanding the bottle bill makes sense. The program has been extremely successful in keeping litter off the ground and unnecessary waste out of our state's landfills." If the original law is any indication, other container states are expected to follow suit.

But it's not that simple. With the potential for millions of additional containers under an expanded law comes the question of who bears the additional costs of redemption? Bottlers, wholesalers and retailers oppose an expanded bill, saying the costs associated with expansion would be better spent on the creation of recycling programs that allow residents to recycle more than drink bottles and cans. Michigan's recycling rate is just 20%, well behind the Great Lakes States average of 26%. Even some of Michigan's more populated areas, including Detroit, are devoid of any curbside or drop off recycling opportunities.

Others feel an expanded bill would simply increase prices to consumers and shift more of the responsibility for recycling to retailers. Mary Dechow, Chairperson of the Michigan Recycling Partnership said, "The additional containers under the proposed expansion would increase the total number of containers affected by roughly 25%, but more than double the cost because of the complex distribution system involved. The expansion items account for only .7% of the current waste stream. More work has to be done at the state and local levels to initiate programs that help residents recycle the majority of the waste or Michigan will never reach the Governor's goal of a 40% recycling rate," she added.

Variations of the proposed bill have included containers for water and milk.

Recycling education needed

While proponents applaud the expansion, ultimate success of the measure depends on several factors. "At the heart of the issue is recycling," said Dechow. "There must be more markets for recycled products and greater emphasis on recycling at the community level. At the same time, it's been quite awhile since any anti-litter campaigns have been run. Increased awareness and public education for both recycling and litter will go a long ways toward meeting the interests of all stakeholders here," she said.

The senate committee is expected to report in September 2003.

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