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Michigan’s Bottle Deposit Law Celebrates 40 Years of Keeping Michigan Clean

Marc Schupan

The Michigan Beverage Container Act, better known as Michigan's Bottle Bill, recently celebrated 40 years in existence at a celebration in Lansing sponsored by Schupan & Sons, whose Schupan Recycling Division is the largest independent producer of used beverage containers in the nation.

Governor William Milliken was the architect of - and inspiration for - Michigan's landmark bottle deposit law.

“Governor Milliken had asked for a bottle bill in 1971 in his state of the state address,” says Bill Rustem, who worked form Milliken at the time. “We could never get it through the legislature. He tried and tried and tried. What happened in 1976 is we thought we had the votes to get it out of a house committee, and at the last minute one legislator went south on us, frankly. We couldn't get it out of committee.” So it went on the ballot for citizens to decide. And it passed. It went into effect on December 3, 1978.

Credit Josh Stanton @Kzoom Photo+Video
Russ White, Bill Rustem

Some Michigan legislators are pushing legislation to repeal the state's 10 cent deposit law on bottles and cans.

“Despite the opposition to the deposit law, it’s really revered and loved by Michiganders, over 90 percent of folks really like the law,” says Tom Emmerich, chief operating officer for Schupan & Sons and president of Schupan Recycling. “It works really well. Even those who are opposed to the law have done a wonderful job of working with the recycling community to evolve and improve the process from day one. I mean, it is light years different today than what it was back in 1979 when they first started picking up containers.”

Emmerich doesn't buy the argument put forth by those wanting to repeal the law that it negatively impacts Michigan's lowest in the Great Lakes region recycling rate of 15 percent.

“Oh, no I don't. Quite frankly, I think the answer is really simple. The reason that our rate is so much lower than other states is we don't invest in it,” he says. “States like Minnesota and Wisconsin are investing around $20 million a year back into their recycling infrastructure, and they ban things from landfills that we don't ban here in the state of Michigan. So, if you really want to increase the recycling rate in the state of Michigan, I believe you need to take more drastic measures, maybe at the state level, where you ban certain things from landfills and you do need to look at tipping fees. A lot of out of state waste comes in and takes away from our abilities and desire to recycle.”

Susan Collins is president of the Container Recycling Institute.

“The idea of getting rid of the law goes not only counter to what's going on in the United States, but so counter to what's going on in the world.”

Collins believes the bottle bill has worked so well that many Michiganders have come to take its positive impacts for granted.

“If you have a really good program in your state, this happens all the time, people don't even know it. They just take it for granted and they don't understand what the benefits are. It's just something they have always done and they love it. It scores well in opinion polls, but they have no idea the magnitude of the good they’re doing by participating in a deposit law.”

Dan Eichinger is executive director of MUCC, that's the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. He believes improving Michigan’s recycling rate is vital, but repealing the bottle bill is the wrong approach.

“This is an extraordinarily popular program, it's something that the people of the state of Michigan have bought in to, it's one of those uniquely Michigan cultural things that we have here. I just think it's important to remind people about that, particularly when we've got lawmakers who are reaching and grasping at anything to try and change the way that we do recycling and make some changes to the bottle deposit law to advance this argument that it's outdated, that it's unneeded, and that kind of thing.”

Marc Schupan is chief executive officer of Schupan & Sons. For Schupan, one of the ways to increase Michigan's recycling rate is finding ways to create products that use recycled material.

Credit Josh Stanton @Kzoom Photo+Video
Russ White, Marc Schupan

“Just collecting is not recycling and especially in the environment we're in today, we have to be very careful of that, very careful that we think collection is recycling,” he says. “When water bottles go into the landfill, that's like throwing oil in the landfill. We know some day this cannot continue.”

Chris Kolb is president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council. For him, there isn't anything magical about improving Michigan's recycling rate.

“If you look at states that have high recycling rates, there are really basic things they do. They have a stated goal. They have a plan to meet that goal. They have revenue to pay for that plan and to implement it. And then they review how they're doing and make adjustments to go towards their goal,” he says. “So, it's nothing magical. It's not a question of recycling or bottle bill, it's recycling AND bottle bill.

“How many policies that are forty years old are still as effective and efficient as Michigan's bottle bill. It's a testament to good public policy and getting good results. If I had an issue as a politician that had that type of effectiveness, a 96 percent recovery with a 92 percent public support, I'd run every time on that.”

Heiner Bevers is president of TOMRA North America, which designs, manufactures and sells reverse vending machines for automated collection of used beverage containers. He says bottle bills like Michigan's are spreading around the world. He believes the world needs to be moving faster toward a return to a circular economy.

“The world for many years, actually was a circular economy, we didn't call it that but the way our ancestors have operated, they basically reused material; things were reused. Only recently for maybe the last 150, 200 years the world has turned from a circular economy to something we call a linear economy. Extracting materials, producing things out of these materials, and then putting it into waste. So we need to actually come back to the things which were done 200 or 300 years ago where things are reused. And if we look for a reference point, we just have to look into nature.

“Nature doesn't waste anything. Nature recycles everything. I think that's something we have to pursue. We’ll probably never be as perfect as nature, but we should at least strive to get as close as possible.”

Collins is seeing two emerging national trends in recycling.

Credit Josh Stanton @Kzoom Photo+Video
Russ White, Bill Milliken, Jr.

“One is to follow Michigan's lead and impose a dime deposit instead of a nickel deposit. Everybody recognizes that the reason Michigan's rate is the highest is because of the dime deposit. The other thing that's going on is that these deposit laws, when they were passed, we didn't have a lot of non-carbonated beverages like we do now. Now we've got water and tea and sports drinks and energy drinks and those things weren't anticipated when the deposit law was passed in Michigan. So six of the other ten states with a deposit law have recognized that we need to expand to cover all beverages, not just carbonated beverages. They've already gone through that process. So in that area, Michigan is sort of behind the curve a little bit. So that would be what's next for Michigan, and that's definitely a trend in several states.”

Bill Milliken, Jr. was on hand at the event and says his dad is glad to know that so many people believe in the bottle bill he worked so hard for.

“I know that dad and my mother, Helen, were both very committed to a bottle bill,” he says. “They had a hard time understanding why there was resistance to it. It seemed like common sense applied to this pretty easily. It has since, but it was tough sledding back then. He will be thrilled to hear that there were so many people here who believe in what they worked so hard for then.

“He grew up in Traverse City; he's third generation Traverse City. The outdoors and the Great Lakes, he simply took for granted. I think when he came to Lansing and found out that not everybody grew up with Grand Traverse Bay in front of them that he wanted to see what he could do to make those kinds of resources widely available and preserve them.”

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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