George Hall is reclaiming his garage.
Hall and his son, Cameron, of West Bloomfield, pushed shopping carts full of bottles and cans into the Meijer store on Haggerty Road in Commerce Township on Monday morning, as 10-cent deposit redemption officially resumed at Michigan’s two largest supermarket chains, Meijer and Kroger, after a nearly three-month hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve got quite a few here — it’s been a long past three months,” George Hall said.
Hall had to set aside part of his garage for a growing mountain of bottles and cans.
“I couldn’t park the car in there — one car’s in the garage and other side has bottles in it,” he said.
Hall said he and his son wanted to get to the store early.
“We’re trying to beat the rush — I know it’s going to get nuts,” he said.
Loren Boyle of Waterford had a similar thought. He arrived at the Kroger supermarket on Highland Road in White Lake shortly after it opened at 6 a.m., garbage bags full of bottles and cans in tow.
“I already did one bag,” he said. “At first I was dreading it, but it seems to be going pretty quick here. I figure they open at 6 a.m., I’m going to be here at 6 a.m., and I’m going to get in.”
Boyle said he had accumulated six garbage bags, four recycle bins and a cardboard box full of bottles and cans, piled up in his sun room.
An executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 23 suspended the redemption of 10-cent deposit beverage cans and bottles by retailers and others, part of orders intended to protect public health amid the coronavirus pandemic. Of the 10 U.S. states with bottle and can deposits, Michigan was the only state to completely shut down returns, and residents accumulated more than $50 million in dimes-in-waiting during the shutdown.
As coronavirus-related restrictions are beginning to lessen, the state this month announced bottle and can deposit redemption could resume. All grocery stores, supermarkets and other retailers with bottle return facilities located at the front of the store, or housed in a separate area, and serviced exclusively by reverse vending machines, were required to begin re-accepting returns by Monday. The reverse vending machines, into which customers feed bottles and cans and receive a printed out receipt, minimize person-to-person contact during the transactions.
While some stores began taking returnables again last week, Meijer and Kroger waited until Monday — at least officially.
“This week will be very interesting because it’s the first week you’ll have a significant number of retail stores taking back empties,” said Tom Emmerich, chief operating officer for Schupan and Sons in Wixom and Wyoming, Michigan’s largest processor of recycled beverage containers.
“I don’t know 100% what to expect.”
About two-thirds of Michigan’s approximately 120 Meijer stores did a soft, unannounced resumption of deposit returns beginning June 8, Emmerich said.
“I think it took a tremendous amount of pressure off the system,” he said.
At the White Lake Kroger on Monday, the first half hour of the official return of returns was busy but orderly. The reverse vending machines hummed constantly as customers fed a steady stream of bottles and cans into them. Five other customers waited their turn, shopping carts full of bottles and cans, on designated spaces, set 6 feet apart.
The state is allowing stores to restrict hours in their deposit centers to clean and maintain reverse vending machines. State law already caps the maximum number of bottles and cans that can be redeemed at a time at $25, a restriction that may be more strictly enforced now.
Meijer store officials urged customers bringing their bottle and can stashes to wear a mask and to maintain social distancing.
“We know there is an abundance of beverage containers waiting to be recycled, so we’re asking all of our customers to please be patient and respectful toward each other as we deal with a volume of returnable containers that we’ve never seen before,” Todd Weer, Meijer senior vice president of stores, said in a statement.
Schupan and Sons, after being idled since late March, had its full processing staff of about 150 employees back to work as of last week, with another 40 employees resuming work for UBCR, Schupan’s logistics affiliate that collects the full bins of containers from supermarkets and brings them to either its Wixom or Wyoming facilities. Schupan also has an ownership stake in TOMRA, a reverse vending machine supplier for retailers.
Emmerich said employees are prepared for the built-up mass of bottles and cans headed their way.
“It’s clumsy, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “There’s going to be, and there are, challenges.”
Schupan/UBCR are picking up full bins of bottles and cans from stores more frequently, and have staff designated for “emergency pickups” — “If somebody gets full and they call us, we’ll do everything in our power to get there as quickly as we can,” Emmerich said.
Under the latest executive order on bottle and can redemption, retailers are allowed to cap their returns at 140% of their normal weekly volumes for this time of year, he said. Whether stores will shut down their bottle return rooms when they reach that cap, however, remains to be seen.
“Retail, it’s going to be a huge burden on them, we understand,” Emmerich said. “They have to be able to have the flexibility to create the proper social distancing, to be able to shut down the rooms when machines need to be cleaned, shut them down when their bins are all full.”
The most important thing, Emmerich said, is people are getting their bottle and can deposit money back again.
“The ones who need it the most are probably the ones lining up,” he said.
“The public’s got to be patient, the retailers have got to be patient, the distributors. It’s good to be back in business, and if we all work together, we’ll get through it.”