BOSTON – Some might be piling up in garbage bags in the corner of a garage. Others could be finding their way into the trash. The vast majority, experts believe, are just going into curbside recycling bins.
But whatever is happening to them, millions fewer bottles and cans are being redeemed for their 5-cent deposits during the stay-at-home emergency caused by coronavirus, accelerating a trend that has been been picking up steam for the past five years or more.
The Department of Revenue reported in March collecting $5.57 million in unredeemed bottle deposits, up from $4.17 million in March 2019. The year-to-year uptick in abandoned deposits last month represented more than a third of revenue growth in this area for the year, and it occurred in just one month when an additional 28 million bottles and cans went unredeemed.
“We assume the closing off of the retail avenue is the main cause for the recent increase,” said Steve Boksanski, executive director of the Massachusetts Beverages Association.
The Department of Environmental Protection and Attorney General Maura Healey on March 18 suspended enforcement of the requirement for retailers to accept beverage containers that have a deposit.
While no retailers were required to stop accepting bottle redemptions, the pause in enforcement was intended to give grocers, supermarkets and other retail operations time and space to adjust their staffing to meet the demand of consumers stockpiling food and beverages for their extended time at home.
Residents who used to drop off their bottles when they went shopping were encouraged to either hold on to them until after the state of emergency lifts, or utilize their municipal recycling program or nearby redemption center.
The impact has been been a small, and potentially uncertain, windfall for the state.
The beverage industry said that redemption rates hit an all-time low last year when they fell below 50 percent, and if the current trend continues it could go even lower this year.
“We’ve been watching that go down here for a long time. We see both Massachusetts and Connecticut fighting each other for lowest performance of a deposit program in the US. They’re both dogging it out at 50 percent and dropping,” said Bree Dietly, of Northbridge Environmental. “The big picture is that unclaimed deposits have really gone up a lot in the past five or six years.”
Dietly consults for the Massachusetts Beverage Association, a trade group representing an industry that she said is going through a period of “feast and famine.”
While bottlers and beverage distributors are “crazy” servicing supermarkets, their event and on-premise fountain business at theaters and sporting venues is gone, and convenience store cooler sales remain slow. Some companies have lost 30 percent to 40 percent of their business, prompting layoffs and furloughs.
Dietly said most states around the country that have retail redemption sites have also waived enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic. That led chains like Stop & Shop to completely close their redemption areas.
“The other parts of the infrastructure are the redemption centers,” Dietly said. “The anecdotal information is that those places are not only open, but frantically busy.”
For the year, the bottle distributors have returned $44.9 million to the state to cover abandoned deposits, which over the first nine months of the fiscal year is up almost $3.1 million from the $41.8 million collected through March in fiscal 2019.
While experts believe a lot of bottles that might otherwise be redeemed have found their way into municipal curbside pick-up recycling bins, it’s also possible that some people are gathering cans and bottles in the basements and garages and will redeem them at some future date.
If that happens, experts said, the state may end up having to refund distributors some of the abandoned deposits its collected from them.
Bottle redemption rates have been least affected in states with more redemption centers than retail locations, Dietly said. Massachusetts sits in the middle of that mix, with some redemption centers, but more retail sites.
“The other thing that we’re seeing is that people are responding by putting more containers and more materials in general into their curbside bins,” Dietly said.
Kirstie Pecci, who works on zero-waste policy for the Conservation Law Foundation, said the pandemic has exposed areas of the recycling system that can and should be improved.
“As far as I can tell from Connecticut and talking to MassDEP, the issue isn’t a safety issue, it’s a staffing issue,” Pecci said about redemption sites closing during the health emergency.
“That says to me, one, we need to do better as a society automating and updating our recycling system, so when you have facilities that operate independently it’s easier to keep things like the bottle bill going no matter what,” she said.
Pecci said the feeling in the waste disposal community is that more bottles are finding their way into the single-stream recycling system, which could put additional budget pressures on municipalities, which were already feeling squeezed by the rising cost per ton to recycle.
She pointed to a program in Oregon where breweries are reusing beer bottles as many as 50 times.
“There’s no reason we can’t be refilling all these glass bottles,” she said.
Boksanski noted that Massachusetts does have a waste ban that covers plastic containers and makes it illegal for them to wind up in a landfill or incinerator.
The Conversation Law Foundation has also been pushing a bill this session filed by Rep. Michael Day of Stoneham that would help municipalities with the cost of recycling by charging producers of consumer packaging a fee based on how reusable and recyclable their products are. The money collected would go into a fund to help cities and towns pay for recycling.
“It’s horrible what’s happening and everybody’s in crisis and I can’t imagine how upsetting this is for so many people, but to me, also, we need to use this as a way to evaluate how we’ve been running our systems,” Pecci said.