TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - Retailers might be allowed to choose whether to continue accepting returned drink bottles and cans under a plan to improve Michigan's lackluster performance in recycling solid wastes, a state official said Tuesday.
The proposed revision of the state's beverage container deposit law is part of a draft recycling strategy developed by the Department of Environmental Quality, spokesman Brad Wurfel said. The agency presented it this month during a meeting with business leaders, environmentalists and local government representatives.
The plan offers options such as requiring all residential waste haulers to provide recycling, encouraging use of recycled materials in new products, and educating the public to generate more enthusiasm for recycling.
But the idea likely to generate the most discussion is the opt-out provision for retailers, who have long complained about being required to collect soft drink and beer containers from their customers for a 10-cent refund.
Michigan voters approved the deposit law in a 1976 referendum and it retains wide support, giving people an incentive not to clutter roadsides with bottles and cans. An estimated 97 percent of containers covered by the law are returned, said Kerrin O'Brien, executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition, an advocacy group.
"The bottle deposit law is designed to make it very convenient to return your bottles and cans," said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. "We have the highest rate in the country for those. If all of a sudden grocery stores on a large-scale basis were able to opt out, you'd expect to see that rate drop."
The plan doesn't call for eliminating the deposit. Instead, it suggests opening "redemption centers" where people could take bottles, cans and other recyclable materials such as paper, metal, glass and plastic. Retailers choosing not to accept returned containers could establish a redemption center in partnership with an existing drop-off location run by a local government or a private operator.
"This is not an effort to undo Michigan's bottle bill," Wurfel said. "This is about expanding Michigan's recycling ethic."
Only about 14.5 percent of the solid waste generated in the state is recycled. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the national average at 34 percent in 2010. Gov. Rick Snyder promised last fall his administration would develop an improvement plan.
The subject has been debated for years, but the DEQ hasn't been able to satisfy all sides on an alternative method of collecting beverage containers and how to pay for it, Wurfel said. The department will continue talks with the advisory group and should have a final proposal by next spring, he said.
Retailers don't object to the bottle law and would like to see more recycling of containers of other beverages such as water, iced tea and juice, said Linda Gobler, president of the Michigan Grocers Association. But many don't like having used containers in their stores because of sanitation concerns, she said.
"People are bringing back containers filled with urine, cigarette butts, rodents, roaches," Gobler said. "We've had store clerks stabbed by needles placed in these containers."