By Nora Flaherty
MPBN news story
Laura, Lewiston: When I first moved to Maine, I thought all the redemption centers were churches! I get now that they’re not, but why does Maine have so many redemption centers?
If you live in Maine, it’s likely just part of your regular housekeeping to return your cans and bottles for the deposit, whether that’s by feeding them into a machine at Shaw’s, dropping off your Clynk bag at Hannaford or returning them to the redemption center. Or maybe you save a huge bag of them in your garage and wait for someone from a local organization to come by on a fundraising mission.
But if you’re new to the area, the number of “redemption centers” — there are between about 350 and 400 in our state of 1.33 million — can be a little baffling. Here’s what’s behind it.
Maine has had a bottle deposit law, usually known as a “bottle bill,” since the 1970s. If you live in Maine it might seem completely normal, but it’s actually pretty unusual.
And we have the answer to the question, but first, some background.
Why is Maine one of only 10 states (plus Guam) that has a bottle bill?
To answer that question, let’s go back.
In the early part of the last century, most drinks were sold in refillable glass containers like the iconic Coke bottle, but over time, they were gradually mostly replaced by “one way” containers.
This happened in the 1950s and 1960s for the most part, and by the late ’60s, litter was becoming more and more of a public problem.
By the 1970s it had become a major concern nationally. Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute says one-way containers played a huge role.
“There had just been this shift from everything being primarily refillable bottles that weren’t littered, because people were taking them in to get their deposit back, and then all of a sudden they were no deposit no return containers, and it was sort of advertised that you don’t have to do anything with this, you can just throw it away,” she says.
So people did, and she says “roadside litter, particularly, was just rampant. And people were very upset.”
Mainers were certainly upset, and in 1976, voters passed a referendum measure creating one of the first state bottle bills in the nation — Oregon and Vermont were first. It went into effect in 1978.
One big reason there aren’t more states with bottle bills is that, across the country, they’ve faced organized opposition. Much of that, says Collins, comes from big beverage companies like Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle.
“They’re the ones in charge of actually getting these containers and making sure that they get recycled, and they’re also the ones who are responsible for paying for that,” she says. “And they don’t like to do either.”
In contrast, the costs of municipal recycling programs like curbside recycling are covered by the towns and cities themselves, and to some extent the state. That’s in part why an effort to repeal the deposit law in 1996 met with active opposition by the Maine Municipal Association.
What does it cover?
When it first went into effect, Maine’s bottle bill only covered beer and soda, but over the years, it has expanded to include wine, spirits, beer, hard cider, wine coolers, soda, bottled water and “alcoholic and noncarbonated drinks.”
In case you’re wondering, that means it doesn’t include milk and other dairy, Maine-produced apple cider and blueberry juice, broths and soups, instant drink powders, products designed to be eaten or drunk while frozen or liquid syrups, concentrates or extracts.
And the update on the state waste laws that’s in Legislature right now would expand it even further, to cover Maine-produced apple and blueberry juice.
So what are my options for getting my deposit back?
Maine offers an exciting array of options for people wishing to reclaim their deposits — which is, obviously, most of us. You can give a giant bag of bottles and cans to your cousin’s kid’s soccer team, but if you want those nickels back yourself, you can return them to the supermarket or another store, or to a redemption center.
If you return them to a Hannaford, you’ll use the store’s Clynk system. Clynk is a Maine-based recycling company that runs a system by which you get special Clynk bags and a bar code that you stick to the full bag. You then just drop it off at the store.
You have an account with Clynk and it adds the amount of the deposit to that account. You can then redeem it for cash, use it toward your groceries or, once you’ve built up a balance, you can donate to various organizations.
Otherwise, you’ll either return your bottles at the supermarket or another local place using what are called “reverse vending machines.” You feed your bottles and cans into them, and get a voucher out at the end.
Or you’ll take them to the redemption center.
You redeem the bottles for your deposit, not your soul
The “redemption” here refers to your deposit, not your soul, as Laura of Lewiston had originally thought.
So what happens when you bring your bottles and cans to the redemption center? Obviously, they count your bottles and you get your deposits back.
But once your bottles are inside, the magic happens.
The redemption center workers sort out the bottles by type, size, brand, etc., and then someone picks them up. That’s either the distributor, like Pepsi, or a private company, like Tomra, which also makes those reverse vending machines.
At the recycling center, the bottles and cans are processed — sorted, crushed, etc. — and then they’re sold on to various companies that do various things with them.
At Returnable Services, where we went to see the recycling process, glass bottles are sorted by color, and ultimately go on mainly to Strategic Materials, where general manager Beth Milligan says they’re melted down and end up as fiberglass, or more bottles.
When cans come in, they’re put on a conveyer belt, where the occasional steel can is pulled out by a magnet. That’s because a pure bale of aluminum fetches a higher price than one adulterated by steel cans.
They’re then crushed, baled and made into new aluminum cans. The same thing happens with those steel cans.
Plastic is turned into a variety of things, depending on what kind of plastic it is. It’s made into more bottles, but also into the backing on rugs, fleece, beads or even lumber for decking.
So why are there so many redemption centers in Maine?
It took a while to get here, thanks for staying with us. But the answer is — drum roll — simple economics.
In addition to the reimbursement of the deposit that they give to you, redemption centers get a handling fee, which comes from the beverage distributor.
“If you go to Massachusetts or New York, the redemption centers only get a couple cents per unit, and here in Maine they get 3.5 or 4 cents per unit,” Milligan says.
And at least in the past, she says, it was very easy to open a redemption center of your own.
“There was a time in Maine where pretty much anybody could open their garage door and start a redemption center, and get a license,” Milligan says. “And that’s not true anymore, but some of those redemption centers are still operating.”
As you’d expect, when the bar to making money is lower, more people are likely to do it.
“Whereas in Massachusetts or New York they’d need twice the volume to make the same amount of money,” Milligan says.
This also explains why some redemption centers pay 6 cents a can — they’re paying a penny to try to get you into their center, and into the convenience store that may be attached.
Aluminum bails are used to create … more cans. Glass and plastic bottles are used to create … more bottles. Recycled glass is also used to make fiberglass. Recycled plastic is also used to make rug backing, fleece, plastic beads and lumber.
Why don’t they just wash the bottles and reuse them?
In much of the world, they do. You’ve probably seen Mexican Coke in the supermarket, for example. But, as we’ve already talked about, the American beverage industry decided to go a different way back in 1950s and ’60s, and it would take a big change in the way the whole American system of bottling, recycling, etc., is set up to go back to reusable bottles.
It would also mean a big change in how Americans think about this stuff – most of us are used to one-way bottles, and the idea of paying a big deposit and committing to return a bottle can be unappealing.
In Mexico, for example, the deposit on a bottle of Coke is substantial in relation to the price. For a more local example, the deposit on Smiling Hill Farms milk is $2 for a half-gallon glass bottle of milk. And Tim Boutot of Boots Bounty Redemption in Portland, to whom we spoke for this piece, says the farm still has occasional trouble getting its bottles back.
It’s also cheaper and easier for beverage companies to recycle than it is for them to reuse. Transporting empty glass bottles without breaking them represents much more of a challenge — and an expensive one, since you’re paying to move the empty space inside the bottles — than sorting the glass, shattering it and then moving the solid block of glass.
Does this actually increase recycling in Maine?
Apparently, yes. There’s no official reporting mechanism for how much the bottle bill actually increases recycling, but the Container Recycling Institute reports the informal recycling rate of returnable containers is 90 percent.
According to the institute, that’s in contrast to about 30-40 percent nationally.