News Story

Backlog Of Used Beverage Containers Headed To Michigan Stores

‘Grocers are really worried about being inundated’ by unwashed bottles as ban on bottle and can redemption ends

A nearly three-month ban on the processing of returnable beverage containers, issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 23 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will end on June 15, the Michigan Department of Treasury has announced.

Like the suspension, the resumption of container-return operations will be mandatory. But it will be so only for large-scale retailers that have front-of-store or segregated return areas with self-service machines.

Those that do aren’t looking forward to it.

For weeks, Michiganders have stockpiled cans and bottles in basements and garages, and now, retailers can expect a deluge of customers, eager to collect their deposits.

“Grocers are really worried about being inundated with bottles that have been sitting around unwashed, that their workers will have to handle and they have to find a place to store,” said Michigan Retailers Association spokeswoman Meegan Holland.

In addition, there will be a set of regulations about what and where returns will now be required, instead of banned. Holland said that retailers will be cast in the role of explaining and enforcing Whitmer’s edicts, and suffering the wrath of disgruntled customers.

Although they will be required to accept returns on June 15, merchants will be permitted to “establish special or limited hours of operation.” They will also be able to limit the number of self-service machines available and periodically close for cleaning.

Those without self-service return centers, like party stores and small-scale grocers, will still be forbidden to redeem container deposits.

Retailers are also permitted, under the referendum that established the so-called Bottle Bill in 1976, to limit returns by a single individual to $25 a day.

The backlog, complicated regulations, and ongoing mandates for social distancing and sanitation all add up to a nightmare, said Amy Drumm, director of government affairs for the Michigan Retailers Association.

The scenario suggests that Michigan policymakers should consider an overhaul of the state’s bottle bill in its entirety, she said.

During the suspension, the association asked the Whitmer administration to consider changes to the bottle and can regime. Those changes would set up separate, open-air facilities for redemption, like those in the limited number of other states which require beverage container deposits.

That suggestion was rebuffed.

The COVID-19 crisis, with its heightened emphasis on sanitation, highlights the questionable wisdom of requiring Michigan grocers and retailers to operate ancillary refuse centers alongside their primary function of selling clean and safe food, Drumm said.

Beginning on June 15, however, they won’t have a choice.