Michigan bottle law a messy success
By Larry P. Vellequette
The Toledo Blade
LAMBERTVILLE - With a blue Navy lanyard hanging from his
neck and a straight-billed baseball cap angled slightly
to one side, Dick Evilsizer is one of the men behind the
success of Michiganís bottle law.
He had nothing to do with the citizen-backed initiative
- first implemented 25 years ago Wednesday. - which puts
a 10-cent return value on every carbonated beverage and
beer container sold in the state. He canít even remember
if he voted for the measure, a unique experiment in populist
environmentalism that has created thousands of jobs and
helped clean up roadways by transforming trash into a
But in so many ways, the largely hidden labors of Mr.
Evilsizer and others like him have helped Michiganís bottle
law achieve the highest recycling rate for bottles and
cans of any state in the nation.
"You have to keep these things clean or they shut
down," the 77-year-old retired truck driver-turned-stock
boy says, pointing at the four large reverse vending machines
on the wall of the Lambertville Kroger Store. People with
bottles and cans to return for deposits put their used
containers in the machines and receive a small white receipt
that they redeem at the store for cash.
The containers - all too often with pop and other liquids
still inside - are crushed by the machines for recycling.
"With all that pop and beer and junk, they get to
be a real sticky mess," Mr. Evilsizer said. "Itís
a constant job to keep up with it."
There are an estimated 4 billion beer and soft drink
containers sold annually in Michigan that are subject
to the 10 cent deposit. An additional 651 million drink
containers (juice, water, spirits) sold in the state each
year are exempt from the law.
Ohio has no bottle law. Across the state line, the sticky,
yucky part of Michiganís bottle law is in the back of
grocery stores, markets, and other businesses that must
accept the recyclables.
"The current deposit law has taken the trash off
Michiganís roads and put it in the backroom of my store,"
said Jeff Miller, owner of Georgeís Market in Tecumseh.
"Youíre asking me and my people to handle some of
the filthiest stuff that Iíve ever seen."
However, itís not just pop and beer residue that coats
the floors and walls of his small backroom that worries
him. Itís the other stuff found inside the recyclable
containers: gasoline, needles, used condoms, tobacco juice.
"To me, the health issue far outweighs the profit
issue or the amount of money weíre losing. Weíve got to
find a better way of doing this than in our food stores,"
Mr. Miller says.
Linda Gobler, president of the Michigan Grocers Association,
agrees. "Whatís happened is that people are bringing
in all kinds of substances that are in those containers."
Ms. Gobler says stories abound of rodent infestations
and store employees stuck with used needles while handling
container returns. While the political reality is that
Michiganís container law remains very popular among the
general population, her association would like to see
"What weíre saying is get it out of the grocery
store," Ms. Gobler says. "We really are compromising
the food environment. Shoppers would be outraged if we
said, ĎBring in your bag of garbage and drop it off before
you shop,í but thatís what is essentially happening."
Michiganís container law was enacted by 64 percent of
the voters in November, 1976. It reached the ballot via
a citizenís initiative led largely by environmentalists
as a way to encourage recycling and clean up a huge litter
problem across the state.
William Milliken, who served as Michiganís governor from
1969 to 1983, was in office when the initiative was presented
to voters. He remembered how he became one of the proposals
"I asked a couple members of my staff to arrange
for a pickup of throwaway cans and bottles along a certain
one-mile section of highway around Lansing so we could
get a feel for the problem," the former governor
said from his Traverse City home.
The next thing he knew, Mr. Milliken said, he was in
the middle of a staff meeting when staffers "brought
in several of these huge gunnysacks full of bottles and
cans, and it brought home the need that we had to do something."
Within two years of being implemented, a Michigan Department
of Transportation study found that the number of roadside
litter items collected per mile had been reduced by 48
percent. The department now estimates that there is 84
percent less litter per mile today than when the bottle
"It had remarkable results. It led to quite an impressive
cleanup of our roadways and pathways and the whole state,"
Mr. Milliken said. "It was one of the better things
that I think we accomplished."
Michigan leads the nation in the rate at which beverage
containers are recycled: between 95 and 98 percent, a
full 15 to 20 percentage points higher than the 10 other
states with bottle deposits and double or triple the rates
in states without a deposit law.
"I just think someone in Michigan was very forward
thinking," said Pat Franklin, executive director
of the Container Recycling Institute, a Virginia-based
organization that advocates a nationwide bottle bill.
"Michigan is sort of at the head of the class in
terms of having the highest [deposit return] value, and
Maine has the most expansive law," Ms. Franklin said.
"The [materials] markets are strong for beverage
container materials, glass, [plastic] bottles, and cans.
There are businesses that canít get enough of those materials."
Theyíre not hard to spot, the people who make their living
off Michiganís bottle bill. They push carts brimming with
a hodgepodge of cans and bottles of all types, as if they
had bought their beverages ala carte, and they walk out
of Michiganís retail stores with padded wallets.
"We have a lot of people that make a living at this,"
Mr. Evilsizer says. "They can get 25 or 50 bucks
like nothing, and as long as [the containers] say Michigan
on them, we canít do nothing."
In a comprehensive study of Michiganís bottle bill in
2000, the state of Michigan estimated that about 100 million
cans and bottles are fraudulently redeemed each year for
10-cent deposits. Thatís $10 million paid out that isnít
A lot of that fraudulent trade involves Ohio. Michigan
stores, especially those relatively close to the border,
receive containers from Ohioans who cross the border with
their recyclables as well as from Michigan residents who
buy cheaper beverages in the Buckeye state and then recycle
their empties in their home state for the return money.
The Michigan stores post signs warning that those redeeming
"Ohio" cans can be prosecuted under Michigan
law. But in practice, such prosecutions are rare.
While it might be physically possible for beverage manufacturers
to somehow differentiate which of their containers are
sold in Michigan and which are sold elsewhere, the logistical
costs would far exceed whatís being lost through fraudulent
returns, officials say.
"The cola you buy and beer you buy is in a uniform
can thatís used nationwide. If you tried to put a special
bar code on it for each state, the logistical problems
would be enormous," says William Lobenherz, president
of the Michigan Soft Drink Association.
To see the impact of the bottle bill, one need only shop
at similar stores on each side of the Ohio-Michigan line.
The regular price of a 12-pack of Coca-Cola at the Farmer
Jack Supermarket on Laskey Road in Toledo is $3.59. The
same 12-pack at the Farmer Jack Supermarket in Monroe
is $3.99, plus $1.20 bottle law deposit. Similarly, a
24-pack of Budweiser cans at the Toledo store costs $16.49,
but sells for $17.49 at the Monroe store plus $2.40 deposit.
The association estimates that Michiganís bottle law
adds at least 4.4 cents to the cost of every can of pop
and every bottle of beer that is sold in Michigan in addition
to the dime deposit.
Despite the fraudulent returns, Michiganís bottle deposit
fund has never paid out more than itís taken in. The difference
in the two amounts - referred to by the state as the escheat
- is divided up each year, with 75 percent of the remaining
funds used by the state to pay for environmental clean-ups
and the other 25 percent returned to retailers for their
time and trouble.
In 2002, there were $443.9 million in deposits paid and
$425.8 million in refunds, leaving an escheat of $18.1
million. Of that, retailers will get $4.5 million, according
to the Michigan Department of Treasury.
But retailers say the money in the escheat fund doesnít
begin to cover the costs they incur as a result of the
"At best, itís break even for the stores,"
says Dennis Hybarger, vice president of the Michigan Beer
and Wine Wholesalers Association. "Part of that is
that your employee doesnít have to spend time then determining
whose containers are whose."
While fraudulent redemption and ongoing health concerns
continue to plague bottle return systems, the Michigan
legislature appears poised to weigh in with some changes
to the stateís bottle bill.
State Sen. Cameron Brown (R., Sturgis), chaired a legislative
task force on the topic that this year took testimony
during nine public meetings around the state, including
one in Adrian. Among other things, they heard thoughts
on expanding the bottle bill to also cover the estimated
651 million non-carbonated beverage containers sold in
the state each year. It also heard discussion of relieving
retailers of their collection responsibilities, or at
least better compensating them for their trouble.
Task force members have begun introducing about 40 new
bills into the legislature that aim to make a number of
changes to the bottle bill. But the chief goal of their
proposals, Mr. Brown says, is to improve Michiganís recycling
rate for all materials by providing funding mechanisms
for such amenities as curbside recycling pickup.
Michigan recycles just 20 percent of its entire municipal
waste stream, ranking it 28th nationwide, according to
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That figure
puts Michigan below Ohioís recycling rate of about 22
percent and below the 26 percent average for all Great
Among the proposed legislation is measure that would
put a $3-per-ton surcharge on waste going into Michigan
landfills. The money generated by the surcharge would
be used to expand existing recycling programs and introduce
"Before we can responsibly talk about expansion,
there are some problems with the current container law,
most notably with the redemption [system]," Mr. Brown
says. "Weíre going to set in force a public policy
which is going to make Michigan a leader in public recycling,
make Michigan a proper steward of our natural resources."