Unredeemed: Halted can returns raise supply concerns

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WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Millions of unredeemed dollars are stuck at Michigan homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are $8 to $10 million in dimes in people’s garages right now — at least we hope they’re in people’s garages,” said Roger Cargill of Schupan Recycling.

That cash is in the form of can and bottle deposits, waiting to be returned as soon as store recycling centers reopen.

An executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month led to the closure of can return areas to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Two days later on March 27, Schupan Recycling, one of Michigan’s major bottle and can processors, idled its facilities in Wyoming and Wixom. Now, the company waits — and so do nervous bottling companies.

The supply chain for aluminum cans is short. Cargill says the entire process, from bottle return machine back to the store shelf, takes about 60 days. That means if recycling doesn’t restart soon, aluminum sheet can companies will likely start switching their supply chain from the specialized aluminum alloy of recycled cans to raw aluminum, which will cost more.

But the cost is already there for Michigan’s more vulnerable populations.

“Our big concern would be there are those people who count on that dime, and they’re going to really suffer,” Cargill said.

SURGING DEMAND FOR DRINKS

Shoppers aren’t helping the dwindling supply of recycled aluminum cans.

Cargill says during the first two weeks of closures prompted by the pandemic, beer sales jumped 50% higher than the same time last year — and that’s without the yearly sales spike prompted by St. Patrick’s Day events and the NCAA’s March Madness.

Sales of other bottled beverages, including water, energy drinks and pop surged 70-75% above average for this time period, as people filled stores to stock up.

The good news — bottled and canned beverage sales have slowed down. Cargill says beer sales have leveled out and pop sales have dropped to 20% above average for this time of year.

RETOOLING RETURN MACHINES

Cargill says while processing has come to a standstill, employees at Schupan Recycling aren’t sitting around.

“We are just doing our best to prepare,” he told News 8.

Cargill says the company that makes the can deposit machines, TOMRA, also operates out of Schupan Recycling’s buildings. Right now, TOMRA is in the process of switching over its machine software to a touchless system for shoppers.

Screen prompts will guide customers through the new post-pandemic experience. The machine will spit out their receipt about 10 to 15 seconds after they stop feeding it returnables, eliminating the need to touch any potentially contaminated surface of the machine.

Cargill says TOMRA is offering to staff store can return areas when they reopen to quickly resolve any issues until Michigan passes the big hump in deposits.

“There are $8 to $10 million in dimes in people’s garages right now — at least we hope they’re in people’s garages.”

– Roger Cargill, Schupan Recycling

As for Schupan Recycling, Cargill says the company is planning longer shifts, processing cans and bottles 24 hours a day to try to rebuild the supply of recycled aluminum and plastic beverage companies need.

“We just want to be a good partner to our retailers,” he added.

BOTTLE BILL BREAKDOWN

(Explainer courtesy: Schupan Recycling, TOMRA and UBCR)

Michigan is one of only 10 states with a bottle bill law.

Lawmakers enacted the program in 1978 to incentivize recycling and it’s worked: Twenty years later, Michigan’s can recycle rate still hovered around 97%.

>>PDF: Michigan Bottle Bill FAQ

Michigan’s bottle and can recycling rate has since dipped to 89% in 2018, possibly because the value of the dime has diminished over time. Cargill says Michigan’s can deposit amount would have to jump to nearly 33 cents each to have the same buying power.

So what happens to all of the money Michigan shoppers pay in cans that they never refund? The state moves it into an escheats fund which primarily pays for environmental cleanups. About a quarter of the escheats fund is returned to retailers to offset the cost of the bottle return program.

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