Public Sector Consultants chief executive officer Julie Metty Bennett gives her take on Michigan’s bottle bill at Crain’s Detroit Business.

Michiganders like to think of themselves as avid recyclers.

After all, for nearly 45 years, we’ve been faithfully returning bottles and cans to local supermarkets in an effort to do our part for the environment and keep our state clean.

This has been ingrained in our culture longer than some readers have been alive.

By most accounts, the program — originally designed to keep our roadsides free of litter — has been a resounding success.

That’s why Chad Livengood’s April 25 column calling Michigan’s bottle bill “a mess” caught my attention.

Not only because Public Sector Consultants has been involved with the state’s bottle deposit bill from its early days, but because he’s right — it is a mess — and operating two parallel recycling systems is expensive.

We estimate that operating two parallel systems costs twice as much on a per-capita basis than operating only one comprehensive system. On a per-ton basis, it’s almost three times as much.

Maintaining one system for returnables and another for all other recyclable materials creates inefficiencies and unnecessary costs, especially because some of the most valuable recyclable materials, PET plastic and aluminum, are common beverage containers.

Not having access to that precious commodity hurts local recycling programs.

Up until 2018, we recycled more than 90 percent of our bottles and cans, after that, it dipped down to 89 percent.

So it may be surprising to learn that Michigan has a significantly lower overall recycling rate than the rest of the country and is considered the worst recycler in the Great Lakes region.

Our state’s recycling and waste diversion rate is just over 15 percent, compared to a national average of 32 percent. Given this underwhelming showing, it’s clear — the bottle deposit law alone is nowhere near enough for our state to achieve the recycling performance we want and need.

Our research has shown that what makes a successful recycling system is not the presence of a bottle bill; there are several high-performing states that don’t have one in place at all.

These states do, however, share three core principles:

  • Know where you are. Establish a robust reporting and tracking system of all materials currently recycled in the state.
  • Know where you want to be. Set and pursue aggressive goals. A system with no concrete recycling targets will likely languish or fail.
  • Know how to get there. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but achieving recycling goals almost always requires strong leadership to boost investment and awareness, ensuring equitable access across the state.

High performance depends largely on having a strong and convenient infrastructure, which typically requires designated recycling bins for curbside pickup.

The system then needs to be coupled with education and outreach to develop a recycling culture.

Michigan has made great strides in recent years to emulate these best practices. In 2016, the state Legislature passed legislation to develop a reporting scheme and, in 2018, passed an unprecedented increase in funding for recycling efforts, skyrocketing its annual investment from $2 million to $15 million.

Most recently, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy announced the largest push in state history to promote recycling activities that divert materials away from landfills, while also aiming to boost local economies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no question that important work is ongoing to update our current solid waste policy and emphasize recycling and composting material over sending it to landfills.

The steps taken so far by the state to increase the overall recycling rate have been considerable, but more progress needs to be made.

If Michigan were to consider a new recycling plan, it would be more cost effective and efficient to phase out the bottle bill.

A more comprehensive recycling program is possible through an approach that replaces the bottle bill with strong and widely available local curbside and drop-off recycling opportunities.

The bottle bill is near and dear to many Michiganders. If not done carefully and correctly, repealing it could cause unwanted disruption and a decrease in the recycling of bottles and cans.

That’s why it is essential to implement a system that follows the best practices and principles of high-performing states.

By taking these steps, Michigan can match the rate of other high-performing states, and we will soon realize the bottle bill is best placed in history’s recycling bin.


Originally published in Crain’s Business Detroit