Step into your local redemption center and what you will see is the beating heart of Maine’s most effective recycling and litter prevention program.
At Patman’s Redemption Center in Windham, hard-working employees are in a constant state of motion — hand sorting thousands and thousands of bottles and cans being brought in by a seemingly endless flow of customers.Redemption centers are often beloved parts of local communities, but those that bring in containers to redeem probably have little sense of what it takes to keep Maine’s Bottle Bill successfully running.
In a recent visit to Peter Welch’s redemption center in Portland he emphasized in the “anatomy of labor, sorting is only one of the things we do.” It’s customer service. It’s running the cash register. It’s cleaning. It’s fixing self-sorting machines when they break. And they will break.The work done within the walls of these local businesses ensures a strong, successful market for recycling glass, metal, and plastic. It also results in more than $2 million a year in donations to local charities.
But right now, Maine’s local redemption centers are struggling to survive. Inflation and labor shortages have forced some to close and many others to operate at a loss. You may have witnessed these stresses first-hand if you’ve had trouble redeeming bottles and cans, or seen bags of returnables piled up at CLYNK depots in Hannaford parking lots.Local photographer Justin Smulski, who joined us to document the experience at these two redemption centers reflected on the visit perfectly in a recent Instagram post:
“The story we all watched unfold that morning was one of unexpected laboriousness: far more of the sorting is undertaken manually than we could have imagined. Even where machines are involved—crushing cans and smashing glass—ample opportunities for injury arise. Most jarring though, was just how many consumer items marked as recyclable are actually *not;* which means these redemption centers not only use bottle deposits to pay their staff, but also to pay for trashing all those non-recyclable items.”Local redemption center owners, environmental groups like the Natural Resources Council of Maine, and others who care about the future of the Bottle Bill are encouraging Maine lawmakers to take swift action this legislative session to help redemption centers stay in business and ensure that Mainers have places to redeem their bottles and cans.
Maine’s Bottle Bill is a big part of our culture and environmental ethic. Hundreds of Mainers have built their lives and small businesses around bottle redemption. It helps cities and towns reduce waste and save money.
But during the 45 years since the Bottle Bill began there have been many new types of beverages brought to market, advancements in technology, and a growing consumer demand to return to refillable containers.The first bill (LD 134) was passed quickly by the Legislature and became an emergency law in May 2022 to provide immediate relief by increasing the handling fee that is paid to redemption centers by big beverage companies for each container that is redeemed.
The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Allison Hepler of Woolwich, would modernize the Bottle Bill to make it more efficient, effective, and resilient for the future. It would streamline the program for hard-working redemption centers and support sorely needed improvements that will increase consumer convenience and reduce trucks on the road.These two bills work together to support the redemption centers while we work to make the Bottle Bill stronger for the future.
As individuals, one of the best ways we can get involved is by encouraging lawmakers to support these bills. We also need to redeem our containers. Twenty-five percent of beverage containers sold in Maine aren’t being returned, and that money stays with big corporate brands like Coke or Pepsi. Redeeming your containers ensures the money goes back to you or to whatever local charity you’re supporting.
No other program can deliver the environmental, economic, and social benefits of the Bottle Bill. Local redemption centers mean so much to the communities they serve. The time is now to bring our Bottle Bill into this century and support the local businesses that will ensure its long-term success.