The most widely recognized source for comparing recycling amongst the states is “State of Garbage in America” produced by BioCycle Magazine. Its most recent (December, 2008) survey places Michigan’s overall recycling rate at 20% (and our DEQ now reports 14.5%) of municipal solid waste (MSW), while the weighted average of our neighboring Great Lakes states is 30.4%. None of our other neighboring Great Lakes states has a mandatory container deposit law.
Expanding Michigan’s container deposit law to cover non-carbonated beverages such as water, tea, and juices would likely increase the state’s recycling rate by only a fraction of one percent. The current deposit law targets only about 3.4% by weight of our municipal waste – 2.5%from beer containers and 0.9% from carbonated soft drinks (based on national data). Expansion of our deposit law to non-carbonated beverages targets another 1% of MSW. Since some of those containers are already being recycled through community recycling programs, the incremental impact to Michigan’s overall recycling rate from expansion of the deposit law would be notably less than a 1% increase (we would still not even reach 21%)!
Comprehensive community curbside and drop-off recycling programs typically cover items representing about 33% of MSW, so the potential to increase recycling in Michigan is significantly greater if we focus on those comprehensive programs. It should also be noted that non-carbonated beverage containers recycled through the state’s current community programs help to fund those local efforts. Shifting those containers over to the bottle bill would cost our local recycling programs thousands of dollars in lost scrap revenue.
Research places the net cost of recycling through comprehensive community curbside and drop-off programs at $100 to $150 per ton (before factoring in the savings generated from reduced trash collection and disposal costs). Deposit programs on carbonated beverages cost $500 to $800 per ton to recycle. Non-carbonated beverages added to deposit programs cost $1,500 to $1,800 per ton to recycle these incremental containers. Thus, for the same cost to the public, the state could expect to recycle under comprehensive programs some 4 times more than under a traditional deposit system, and some 10 times more than would be achieved through a deposit on non-carbonated beverages.
Regardless of what type of recycling program is in place, it is the consumer and the taxpayer that ultimately pay for the costs of recycling. Funding may come from state or local taxes, recycling fees, disposal fees, or higher prices for the consumer product. We owe it to our citizens, then, to adopt for Michigan the most efficient and cost effective approaches toward recycling.
The current Michigan deposit law on carbonated beverages costs the Michigan consumer about $200 million annually in increased beverage costs (our retail prices in Michigan are about a nickel higher per packaged beverage than in surrounding states). If the law were changed to include non-carbonated beverages, the cost to the Michigan consumer would increase by about another $60 to $80 million per year.
It is really pretty obvious why deposit programs are so much more expensive than traditional recycling operations. We know, for example, that Oakland County’s municipal programs recycle more material than we recycle throughout the entire state under the bottle law. Yet in Oakland County, only a single recycler needs to be used to cover a particular area, and that recycler would never have to travel more than 20 to 30 miles. The deposit law, however, requires multiple recyclers, each of whom must service the same stores, and these multiple recyclers have to cover the entire state – but for less material.
Cost Considerations of Expanding the Deposit Law
Our initial consideration should be whether we advocate imposing an additional $60 million cost burden on the public. While the retailers and beverage distributors first pay for the costs of taking back the new containers, this cost is passed on to the public in the form of higher prices for the product. At a time when the public is being asked to either cut back on their expectations for public services, or pay more for those services, is a new $60 million cost burden on the public for recycling 1% (at most) of MSW among your top priorities?
If a new $60 million cost to the public for recycling non-carbonated beverage containers is your top priority, should it be done through a deposit? For those who would be interested in the economic incidence of such a mandated state cost burden, you should be aware that it is very regressive in nature. The cost increases mandated through a deposit scheme do not recognize ability to pay. The single parent, minimum wage employee with two children pays the same as that employee’s manager – yet it represents a much larger portion of his or her disposable income.
Finally, the outcome of this $60 million cost to the Michigan public, if it were imposed through a deposit system, would at best increase our recycling rate by less than 1% (that is, from 20% to less than 21%). If we are really interested in recycling, why wouldn't we instead put those dollars into comprehensive curbside and drop-off programs that address a much greater portion of the waste stream (thus promising a larger increase in recycling rates/tonnage), and at a much lower cost per unit of material recycled? You get a much greater bang for the buck, and people can recycle their non-carbonated beverage containers along with other papers, plastics, metals, and glass, instead of having to take more items back to the store.
Choices and Convenience
Right now, many people already put their non-carbonated beverage containers out with their other recyclables. If they don’t wish to pay a dime deposit up front, plus and the extra nickel retail cost for their carbonated beverages, they have other beverage choices they can purchase, and they can recycle the non-deposit container with their other recyclables. Changing our deposit law to cover non-carbonated beverages would remove that choice from the consumer; put a financial penalty in the form of higher prices on those consumers who already are doing the right thing by recycling their water, tea and juice bottles; and then make them lug the containers back to the store.
Contamination and Complexity
New containers brought into the system by non-carbonated beverages represent an array of different plastics, papers, foils, and shapes. The multiple plastics, if placed into our current plastic container recycling mix, would contaminate existing material batches and render them virtually worthless for recycling. To then separate the materials for plastics uniformity could cost more than the resulting value of the uniform material. Of the new container materials, some have very limited market value, and may have no market at all once collected.
Existing store sorting systems cannot accommodate all the new plastic materials. Nor can they accommodate the foil pouches, multi-material drink boxes, or coated cardboard containers. This would mean the store would have to either purchase and place a significant number of new reverse vending machines, or multiple backroom boxes for manual sorting according to distributor, or a combination thereof (some of these new containers will not be redeemable through any kind of reverse vending machine currently available).
A return to the days of manual sorting of deposit containers, with store employees hand counting and sorting some of the new containers, would be very costly to the stores, and produce long and tedious waits for consumers.
A whole new array of food manufacturers and distributors would also be brought into the system. Many of these have no existing means to remove their empty containers brought back to the stores. Whole new removal and transportation fleets would have to be created beyond our current systems in place.
In short, changing the current deposit system to accommodate non-carbonated beverages would significantly disrupt and complicate our existing systems (and that is why the recycling costs for these incremental containers are so much higher than under the current program).
Revenues for Community Recycling Programs
The plastic and metal containers for non-carbonated beverages represent valuable commodities to community recycling programs. Recyclers typically do not want to lose those materials, because it means they would have to charge their municipal clients more money to run the recycling program. Two major recyclers, in New York City and in Connecticut, opposed proposals to expand those states’ bottle bills in 2007 because of the potential loss of revenue. The impact of expansion in New York City was estimated at $3.1 million per year; the impact in Connecticut was $900,000 per year.
Many of the same dynamics operate for comprehensive litter control programs, which address all litter, as opposed to deposit programs, that target only a small portion of litter. The State of Texas, at an annual cost of less than $2 per capita, reduced its overall litter by 67% through comprehensive education, messaging, and volunteer programs. Deposit programs cannot do this because they cover only 7% of litter. Michigan’s deposit law reduced beverage litter by 88%, but had no impact on other litter. The national research shows that when comprehensive litter programs operate for more than five years, the roads are 40% cleaner than in deposit states.
Litter from non-carbonated beverages is very small compared to other visible litter. If you ever volunteered to help with an adopt-a-highway clean-up, you would be aware that there are many more bags, cigarette packs, old newspapers, candy wrappers, disposable cups, and even deposit containers than there are water, tea, and juice containers that litter our state’s highways.
Becoming A Leader
What have other states done to become so much more successful than Michigan? Recycling professionals will tell you that the two most important things to making meaningful improvements in recycling rates are convenience and education -- convenience, by providing a service whereby the public can recycle at one time a wide array of their recyclables; and education so the public embraces the importance of recycling and understands how best to do it. This helps to establish the recycling ethic.
Until we put the systems in place to offer convenient and comprehensive recycling opportunities for our citizens, Michigan will never become a leader again in recycling. We must have a means to recycle a lot more of the many other food cans, bottles, cardboard packaging, and plastic containers we buy. Should we bring all that back to the grocery store? Of course not. That’s where we buy our food.
Plus, we need to recycle the things we buy over the internet, and at the hardware store, the furniture store, and the department store. Should we put a deposit on these items and require the consumer to take them back to the point of purchase? Again, of course not.
Instead, let’s concentrate on increasing the participation rates at existing curbside programs. Let’s also have curbside recycling programs available where they now do not exist. In areas where the population density is not sufficient to economically offer curbside, let’s have convenient drop-off centers. Both of these recycling opportunities are much less expensive to the public, and can improve our recycling rates much more dramatically than by expanding the deposit law.
So if we are to impose a new $60 million cost on the public for additional recycling, let’s put it to use where it can recover the most materials in the most cost effective manner. If we are really interested in recycling, we will think beyond the bottle. Comprehensive recycling is an answer to a lot more than just 0.7% of the municipal solid waste stream.
In state after state across our nation, it has been demonstrated that comprehensive recycling programs will recycle much more material, and at a significantly lower cost per ton, than a bottle deposit law. The same holds true for litter abatement programs. A comprehensive statewide program that addresses all litter, instead of just the small portion of litter represented by beverage containers, will reduce roadside litter by a much greater amount, and at a far smaller cost to the public, than mandating beverage container deposits.
In Michigan, proposals to expand the deposit law to cover non-carbonated beverages continue to be advocated by certain special interest groups. Since the deposit law has been so successful in recycling carbonated beverages, these groups claim it is a simple and logical next step to extend the law to all other beverages, including non-carbonated beverages. Unfortunately, we also know that Michigan's recycling rate of 14.5 percent lags far behind the 30 plus percent average recycling rate of our other neighboring Great Lakes States (none of which has a deposit law), as well as behind the national average recycling rate of 34.1 percent (EPA, 2010). The recycling programs in these states are able to collect and then sell the most valuable material- aluminum cans- that the deposit law draws out from our recycling carts in Michigan.
What the proponents of expanding deposits seem not to understand, is that expansion of the deposit law would have a negligible effect on this state's overall recycling rate. Indeed, at most it could increase our recycling rate by 1 to 2 percentage points--leaving us still far behind our neighboring states.
Because the implementation of Michigan's deposit law is industry financed, its cost to the public is hidden in the overall price of the product. Even so, the public ends up paying the price for state mandated deposits. In Michigan, for example, one pays about 5 cents more per can of beverage than in our neighboring non-deposit states. That adds up to a real out-of-pocket cost to our Michigan citizens in the range of $200 million per year.
Michigan will never have comprehensive recycling programs like other states unless we find a dedicated source of revenue the state can use to encourage and support comprehensive curbside and drop-off recycling at the local level.
Statewide polling shows that more than 80 percent of the public supports the development of a statewide comprehensive recycling program, which would create up to 13,000 new jobs in Michigan and annually reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 400,000 vehicles off the road or saving 15,000 acres of rain-forest per year.
Importantly, it would recycle 10 times more material tonnage at half the cost to Michigan citizens as compared to expanding the deposit law to non-carbonated beverages. It would be good for Michigan.
In response to growing public concern, many states launched litter control programs in the 1970s. Eleven states attempted to address this issue by passing some form of forced deposit program.
Throughout the United States, beverage containers constitute only 8.5 percent of all litter and they join a wide range of other debris found on roadsides, parks and beaches. Because bottle bills target such a small part of litter, their impact on litter is minimal compared to comprehensive litter control solutions.
Beverage containers also represent a small portion of litter. Across 17 studies conducted over the last 20 years in different parts of the nation, beverage containers of all types averaged 7.4%of litter. On average, only 1.3% of litter was from non-carbonated beverage containers. Litter control programs typically take the dual approach of implementing both a preventative and a clean-up component. Even if expansion of Michigan’s deposit law to non-carbonated beverages were to eliminate all such containers from roadside litter, almost 99% of the litter would still be there. As with successful recycling programs, litter abatement programs in other states directed at the entire problem have been found to be far more effective and cost efficient.
Comprehensive Litter Control Programs Work Better
A statewide initiative, "Don't Mess with Texas," reduced total litter (both beverage and nonbeverage litter) by 67 percent after six years.
Comprehensive litter control programs succeed because they address the behavioral component of the litter issue through education and deterrence. Community involvement and clean-up programs, along with stiff fines for littering and dumping are key to the success of these programs.
After just two years, the roadsides in states with comprehensive litter control programs are 15 percent cleaner than roadsides in deposit states. Where comprehensive litter programs operate more than five years, the roads are 40 percent cleaner than in deposit states. The reason? Deposits ignore 90 percent of the problem.
In Michigan, some bad actors are going out of state to purchase beverages that do not have a deposit. Armed with an artifical margin of $2.40 per case, they are able to offer retailers cheaper beverages, allowing both the middleman and the retailer a nice profit as the retailer still charges a deposit without remitting it to the state. This practice costs Michigan beverage companies more than $10 million per year and means less jobs for these employers to offer. Importantly, it also robs money from the state's unredeemed deposit fund, which could be going to help communities recycle. Unfortunately, none of the money from the deposit containers that are not turned back in has ever gone to help community recycling programs as it was originally intended to do.