- More than half of U.S. states with container redemption programs have temporarily suspended enforcement of requirements for retailers, and in some cases other facility operators, due to multiple factors around the new coronavirus. Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont recently announced respective suspensions.
- California and Hawaii – the other two states with bottle bills – have not announced enforcement changes. Recology, which operates redemption facilities in California, notified customers that some of its redemption services are suspended because of COVID-19. The Hawaii Department of Health noted online that hours of operation for redemption centers could change due to the virus.
- The enforcement suspensions in Connecticut, Maine and Oregon run through the end of March, while Iowa's continues through April 7 and Vermont's goes through the end of April. Those suspensions are subject to extension, and several state agencies have noted that the situation is changing quickly. The suspension in Massachusetts is in effect until further notice, or until a state of emergency ceases. New York will continue its policy "during the ongoing COVID-19 response efforts."
The states that took action did not suspend their entire container redemption programs, just the enforcement of regulations requiring retailer participation. It is up to retailers whether they want to continue participating in a redemption program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Concerns include worker shortages if employees fall ill. Vermont noted that at grocery store redemption centers, the employees currently are needed to help restock food shelves and other essential tasks. But the key reason state agencies and redemption center operators are citing is the safety of workers through reducing face-to-face and container contact.
Because this is a new coronavirus, researchers are still gathering data about how it is transmitted and if — or how long — it lives on objects in a transmittable form. That lack of information has caused some concern about whether consumers might transfer the virus to redemption center employees via their returned containers.
Some redemption centers are trying to reduce the potential risk to their workers by altering the container return process. For example, CLYNK, which operates facilities in Maine and New York, is asking customers to voluntarily tie up bags filled with containers and hold them for three days — the amount of time medical researchers believe the novel coronavirus could live on objects. After three days, the bags can be marked with a brightly colored piece of string or ribbon to indicate they are "3 Day OK" and can be dropped off at a redemption center. CLYNK says it will process all bags regardless of status, but the bright indicator eases employees' minds for their safety.
"The idea of bagging containers and letting them sit for three days might be a smart adaptation," Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, told Waste Dive via email. "[W]e hope that the programs can all resume after the dangers of the pandemic have passed."
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, bottle bill momentum was growing domestically and abroad. In fact, Collins previously told Waste Dive that 2019 was a banner year for bottle bills and the number of governments considering new redemption programs surged. In the United States alone, nine states introduced bottle bill legislation last year. And the number of programs globally, which stood at 40 prior to 2017, has since doubled in number.
Change was meanwhile already afoot for California's bottle bill following the sudden closure in 2019 of rePlanet, the state's largest redemption center operator. It shut down all of its remaining 284 facilities and terminated 700 employees, after already closing 191 recycling centers in 2016. That jolt fueled louder calls for reform from advocates and program participants who argue the state's system is antiquated and broken.
Earlier this year, the California legislature moreover failed to advance a reform bill that would require beverage distributors to form their own container stewardship organization and develop a plan to recycle their own containers. It was considered a type of extended producer responsibility program.
Calls for a bottle bill expansion in New York also grew louder prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. A study released late last year indicated that expanding New York's program to wine and liquor bottles would increase those items' recycling values by 65% and eliminate low-value material from 160 MRFs. However, it could also cost the state's more than 4,500 liquor sellers $36 million for labor, along with reverse vending machine equipment.
"We know that container deposit laws reduce litter, provide cleaner materials that are suitable for closed-loop recycling and provide very high recycling rates, like 80-90%. These benefits are unmatched in other types of recycling programs," Collins said.
But for now, as the United States works to curb the pandemic, many container redemption and curbside recycling programs may temporarily be in limbo following announcements about service changes throughout the country.