Return to Returnables: Michigan’s 1976 Bottle Bill

One of 50 stories, from 50 years of action

By Matthew Woodbury

Michiganders like their pop and beer. In 1972, state residents drank enough cans of brew that, if laid end to end, the empty cans would cross the iconic Mackinac Bridge 13,000 times. Lacking a returnable option, discarded bottles and cans made their way to city landfills or were thrown out of car windows where they collected on the roadside.

It wasn’t always this way. Through the late 1960s, consumers could return empty bottles to the store where some companies took them back. Beverage makers like Coca-Cola then reused the containers for an average of fifteen round-trips. Buying only the beverage was also cheaper for consumers. In 1972, the Ecology Center surveyed eight different brands stocked in Ann Arbor grocery stores. The report found the average cost for a six-pack of 12 oz. drinks was $1.01 when sold in non-returnable bottles, $0.94 in disposable cans, and $0.65 in returnable bottles. The cost of “convenience” packaging required the purchaser to pay much more for the same product.

Single-use packaging had, and continues to have, negative impacts on global environments and the people and communities who are responsible for collection and disposal. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” - an area of debris covering hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean - is just the largest contemporary example of how waste remains in the ecosystem even after it has been thrown away. Whether on a local level or globally, policies that prioritize reuse are a vital step toward achieving a zero-waste future.

The Financial and Environmental Cost of Convenience Packaging

What led the country to ditch returnables? A returnable economy relies on bottlers inspecting and washing bottles, shop owners collecting and storing empties, and consumers bringing containers back to a point of sale. In the 1960s, beverage makers started arguing that the existing cyclical process was expensive and that consumer preferences had changed to favor disposable containers.

Beginning with the first non-returnable steel beer cans in the 1950s, disposables dramatically grew as a source of waste. Following a period of consolidation in the beverage industry, by 1970 most major chains stopped handling returnables. The consequences were not surprising. With recycling still in its infancy millions of bottles and cans made their way to Michigan’s roads, waterways, and landfills.

A Bottle Bill for Ann Arbor

Environmental groups sought to challenge wasteful consumption and preserve Michigan's natural beauty by advocating a return to reusables. In 1971, the Oregon legislature passed the nation’s first “bottle bill” that placed a five-cent deposit on returnable beer and soft drink containers. The option to reuse benefited the environment by decreasing litter and reducing the need to manufacture new containers. Vermont approved a bottle bill in 1972 and many hoped Michigan would be next.

Success seemed likely. In 1970 Michigan had passed the landmark Michigan Environmental Protection Act - the first state law of its kind - that allowed private parties (rather than only public agencies) to pursue legal action protecting the environment. The following year, in his state of the state address, Governor William Milliken asked for a ban on non-returnable bottles.

Opposition from retailers, labor groups, and the bottling industry meant that legislation requiring deposits on beverage containers faced an uphill battle. Manufacturers instead pointed to recycling as an alternative means of disposal. While preferable to going into a landfill, recycling transfers the cost of disposal to municipalities, requires additional sorting, and uses more natural resources.

Watching the lack of action in Lansing, in 1972 the Ecology Center proposed a local bottle bill for the city of Ann Arbor. At a hearing about the ordinance the following spring, Mike Schechtman, the Ecology Center’s director, emphasized the economic and environmental advantages of reuse and criticized intensive industry marketing of throwaways.

Five months of Ecology Center advocacy paid off. On March 20, 1972, the headline of the Ann Arbor News proclaimed “City Curbs No-deposit Bottles, Cans.” The Ecology Center’s ordinance created the first local returnable bottle deposit system in the state, and bipartisan community support showed that economic fears spread by the bottling industry could be mitigated through organizing and citizen education.

Despite this success, victory was short-lived. Just days before Ann Arbor’s law was to go into effect a Circuit Court judge halted the ordinance on grounds that it conflicted with the state’s authority to regulate liquor sales and violated merchants’ rights to equal protection (at the time no other Michigan jurisdiction had similar regulations). It was clear that a deposit system for returnable bottles required action at the state level.

Michigan Returns to Returnables

Turning to a statewide solution, the Ecology Center drew on experience with community organizing to advocate for returnable beverage container legislation. In 1975, Representative H. Lynn Jondahl re-introduced a bill requiring a deposit on beer and soft drink containers. Tom Blessing, an Ecology Center staffer, described the bill as “the only real answer to resource conservation available for the beverage packing industry.” Because the Ecology Center operated one of the largest community recycling programs in the state, Blessing could also speak with authority about how a bottle bill would decrease litter and ease the burden on waste disposal centers.

In Lansing, the bill fell one vote short of making it out of committee. Facing a legislative dead end, the Ecology Center joined a coalition led by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs to pass a state-wide ballot initiative on the bottle bill. To qualify for the ballot organizers needed to gather 300,000 valid signatures in just a few months. Reflecting widespread interest, the coalition ultimately collected more than 400,000 signatures from communities across the state. The fate of the bottle bill was now in the hands of Michigan’s voters. 

To boost awareness and support for the bottle bill (called Proposal A), three University of Michigan students - Tim Kunin, Jeff Ross, and Tom Moran - began a 230-mile walk across the state from Benton Harbor to Belle Isle. Clad in matching yellow shirts reading “Yes on A”, the men walked over twenty miles a day while picking up trash, handing out flyers, and talking to the press. Dave DeVarti, a lifelong Ann Arborite and high school organizer of the ENACT Teach-In that established the Ecology Center, was part of the logistics team that mobilized popular interest in the effort.

Picture of Kunin, Ross, and Moran from Michigan Daily, Oct 28 1976, pg. 1

University of Michigan Library ·Dave DeVarti and Lisa Powers

StoryCorps Interview with Dave DeVarti about his activism

Their outreach paid off. On November 2, 1976, two-thirds of Michiganders approved the bottle bill and endorsed a return to returnables. This citizen action made Michigan the third US state to establish a mandatory deposit system for returnable beer and soft drink containers and the first to ban pull-tabs on metal cans.

Four years after Michigan’s law went into effect in 1978, a study estimated roadside litter was down by 40% and that returnables had saved 15,000 tons of aluminum and 65,000 tons of glass from the state’s landfill. Despite similarly positive results in each state with a returnable bottle law, a national bottle bill remains unpassed.

What’s Old is New Again: Expanding the Reusable Economy

The ten-cent deposit Michigan established in 1976 remains the highest in the country. The state’s redemption rate is the highest too, reaching 94.2% in 2014. Everyone who lives in or visits Michigan has a coalition of environmental organizations to thank for this effort. Environmentalists championed the bottle bill as a way to reduce the energy use, climate impact, and amount of natural resources used in the production of disposable containers. Though it took nearly a decade for the law to come into effect, the Ecology Center pursued the issue locally and learned from each setback how to push statewide legislation forward.

Michigan’s bottle bill also inspired legislation throughout the US. Ten states have a deposit law and six of those have expanded it to include a wider range of non-carbonated beverage containers like sports drinks and juices. No federal legislation is currently on the books and the bottling industry has continuously fought against similar legislation at the state and federal levels. The proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in February 2020, would create a nationwide container deposit system and help shift responsibility for plastic waste from consumers to producers.

In the 1970s, growing volumes of disposable containers motivated Michiganders to pass legislation limiting waste. Fifty years later, slogans from that campaign like “Return to Returnables” and “Abolish Waste” are once again in the public mind. The new movement against single use plastic waste - “Break Free from Plastic” - is the latest example of how we've come full circle. The implications of our throwaway society are again driving powerful movements for change.

Each week this year we will be sharing one of 50 stories to celebrate 50 years of ongoing advocacy for healthy people and a healthy planet. Check back weekly for more, including more stories about environmental activism in Michigan that include environmental justice organizing, right-to-know legislation, and the passage of an environmental bond measure. 

Research for these stories provided by the Environmental Justice HistoryLab at the University of Michigan. For more details, check out our history archive.

Published on July 9, 2020