Putting All Those Bottles and Cans to Work
Zoom happy hours and 'quarantinis' - many sources report that alcoholic beverage sales and consumption have skyrocketed during the global pandemic. That translates to more cans and bottles piling up as retailers have temporarily suspended bottle returns. As cities temporarily close their recycling drop-off centers and/or suspend curbside collections, recycling nonprofits and advocacy groups have recommended that residents store their deposit bottles/cans and recyclables for when operations are up and running again. That's understandable. No matter how unrealistic it is to suggest that many weeks of recyclables could be stored at home, it would be even weirder for such organizations to suggest landfilling them (and landfilling deposit containers is actually illegal in Michigan).
At my house, our landfilled garbage volume has been drastically reduced by recycling properly. We have a 64 gallon curbside bin, and it's full or nearly full every week. I can't imagine trying to find a place to put 6 to 8 weeks (or more) of recycling - I live in a 1,289 square foot house, not a warehouse. Luckily, we've still got curbside pick up of recyclables.
Consumers are still being charged 10 cents at the register for each deposit container, even though they can't get that dime back right now when the bottle's empty. So, what can you do? Here are some thoughts.
The benefit of storing your returnables is that you'll eventually get your dime back. It's always been important to rinse out all recyclables, including deposit containers, but it's even more critical if you plan on storing them in the house or in your garage. The smell of stale beer and sweet sodas will attract bugs and other critters, so make sure those containers are clean and odor-free. Consider using a tiny squirt of dish soap in containers when rinsing because it will thoroughly remove any residual odors that might attract pests.
At some point, stores will hopefully resume collection.
PUT THEM IN YOUR CURBSIDE BIN
While dozens of communities across the U.S. have suspended curbside recycling, most communities that were providing curbside recycling pre-pandemic are still doing so now. One option is to put your CLEAN cans and bottles in your curbside bin. Aluminum cans have always been a highly desired item for recycling - because of the relatively difficult and expensive process of mining bauxite to get to its aluminum content, recycled aluminum is cheaper to use than new aluminum, making it valuable for end users. Both glass and aluminum are more valuable in the recycling stream than plastic, and both are far less likely to end up in a landfill than plastic.
But plastic returnable bottles are more valuable and less likely to be landfilled than other kinds of plastic that end up in curbside bins. 20 ounce soda bottles are typically made from plastic type #1 (the number in the little recycling symbol you'll find on the bottle), also known as PETE, or polyethylene terephthalate. Plastics #1 and #2 (HDPE, or high density polyethylene) are the most valuable plastics in the recycling stream and there's still a domestic market for them (meaning these plastics are less likely to be shipped overseas, landfilled, incinerated, or end up in the ocean).
The only problem, of course, is that you don't get your dime back when you put them in your curbside bin.
Some nonprofit organizations are accepting deposit cans and bottles as donations - and they probably have more access to storage than you do at your house! These organizations plan on redeeming the bottles at a later date and using the money to support their operations. Be sure to contact the organizations and make sure they're still accepting donations. The Humane Society of West Michigan, for example, suspended returnable bottle donations in late March due to storage and staffing issues.
If an organization you support is not yet accepting returnables for donation, perhaps you might offer to help them organize a campaign in your community to collect and store the materials. Might temporarily shuttered companies or storage facilities have room to help store them?
Nonprofits that have accepted returnables for donation may need help post-pandemic in redeeming them bottles for deposit. That might be another way you could volunteer your services.
WILL THE PANDEMIC PUT MICHIGAN'S BOTTLE BILL IN DANGER?
Only ten states in the U.S. have bottle return laws. Unfortunately, various industry groups and trade organizations have fought bottle bills tooth and nail, even though bottle bills have proven by far to be the most effective way to expand recycling, recover valuable materials, and keep them OUT of landfills, incinerators, and the ocean. I have been largely disappointed in the response from large recycling nonprofits to bottle bills; their stance is typically 'neutral' or non-existent. I imagine this is because many of these large organizations get a huge chunk of their funding from the largest single use plastic manufacturers and end users in the world, and promoting bottle bills would represent a conflict of interest (or, more accurately, would mean biting the hand that feeds).
Many retailers have prohibited reusable bags, suspended the refilling of reusable beverage containers, and taken other measures that are putting a dent in the nascent refill revolution developing around the world. Plastics manufacturers have attempted to characterize reusables as hazardous during the pandemic, without any evidence and science to back them up - no evidence has been produced anywhere at any time demonstrating that reusables transmit disease. The plastics industry is capitalizing on this moment to reverse plastic bag bans and crush the refilling movement. What might that mean for Michigan's bottle bill? It wouldn't be the first time that Republican lawmakers have tried to destroy the returnable bottle system. Some industry groups have made ridiculous, unsubstantiated, non-scientific, non-evidence based claims that bottles are not only 'germ-soaked', but 'lethal'. Shameless fear-mongering much?
I'm concerned about how retailers will handle the massive amount of returnables that will need to be processed - without a plan, chaos will ensue. Given that consumers have paid that extra dime deposit per container, they're entitled to get that dime back. That chaos may result in even more vocal, stringent opposition to bottle bills from retailers and other industry groups that resent the labor costs and hassle of bottle returns. Consumers need to express support of bottle bills to ensure that they still exist post-pandemic.
REMEMBER THE PLASTIC BAG BAN BAN?
At the end of 2016, then-Michigan Lt. Governor Brian Calley
signed Senate Bill 853, which preempted local governments from banning plastic bags - also known as the plastic bag ban ban.
In early 2019, however - stay with me now - Democrats sought to ban the ban of banning plastics. House Bill 4500 would repeal Senate Bill 853 and repeal the plastic bag ban ban - so that municipalities could ban plastic bags in the absence of a statewide ban.
Democrats proposed House Bill 5306 and Senate Bill 701, respectively, to vastly expand Michigan's bottle bill to include all other non-carbonated beverages (with the exception of milk containers), such as tea, juice, water, and sports drinks.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
What impact will the global pandemic have on reusable bags, refillable containers, and bottle bills? Make sure your voice is heard - sign the Solving Michigan's Plastic Problem Petition to support HB 5306 and SB 701 and repeal the ban on plastic bag bans, prepared by volunteers of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Council of Huron Valley. Here's the link to the petition: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSesxjQyQKbfCtDdKuzA9ywkIWVymdB_h6UnRhZq7szmXiNt_Q/viewform?fbclid=IwAR2OEB0rhbRsz0SrpfPXNkbR-PHsfbyQvUsi8fNn-z1MBgPNNJJYJNA-fmc