Residents of the state are apparently saving up $7 million in containers every week.

In the world of bottle recycling, Michigan has legendary status. Ten states currently have beverage container deposit laws on the books, and most of them start at 5 cents per bottle. But two states pay a minimum of 10 cents, Oregon and Michigan—with the latter being immortalized in an episode of Seinfeld, thus joining America’s cultural zeitgeist. But COVID-19 has shut down Michigan’s redemption program, and concerns are beginning to mount about that mountain of unreturned bottles and cans—estimated to be worth an eye-popping $50 million in total and growing.

Pile of crushed drink cans
Credit: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Retailers were advised to stop accepting bottle returns in late March, in part due to fears that these containers could spread the coronavirus to those handling them. But annually, residents in Michigan return about 90 percent of their bottles and cans at 10 cents a pop, and the Detroit Free Press spoke with Tom Emmerich, chief operating officer of Schupan & Sons Recycling, who said, even now, people aren’t letting them go to waste. “Consumers are not putting these containers at curbside, they're not throwing them away—yet,” he told the paper. “We also know there are a tremendous number of charities who are working with different communities to collect deposit containers until the stores start taking them back.”

By Emmerich’s estimate, the number of unredeemed beverage containers is growing by 70 million every week. Add that to the 500 million or so already being held, and he believes the state is “probably looking at 20 to 25 weeks to dig ourselves out of this issue.”

The problem isn’t just that all these containers can’t be returned at once; they also need time for processing. And the ripples are apparently being felt across the country: Michigan has reportedly been particularly strict with limiting returns, but most deposit states have tightened their policies. That means less recycled material to use moving forward. “We rely on getting those used beverage cans back, so we can keep that high recycled content,” Scott Breen, vice president of sustainability for the Can Manufacturers Institute, was quoted as saying. “Forty percent of the cans we recycle nationally, we get from those ten states.”

As for Michigan, the Free Press says the state has looked into solutions, but nothing has been approved so far. Speaking with MLive last month, Spencer Nevins of the Michigan Beer & Wine Wholesalers Association suggested that, whatever happens when the ban is lifted, further adjustments will need to be made. “We’re going to need to look at some alternatives for our retail partners for how they take these containers back – whether they can impose some minimums or use shorter hours or set up an alternative site,” he said.

You can almost hear Seinfeld’s Newman and Kramer coming up with a plan to drive all the bottles and cans to Oregon.