From the Braver Institute
While performing a little bit of housekeeping, I had to move a few returnable bottles that had been collecting on a shelf near my kitchen door. For reasons I am not completely sure of I started to think about the deposit on these bottles and Michigan’s deposit laws in general. I thought back to how happy I was when the bottle bill went into effect.
The Michigan Beverage Container Act (the bottle bill’s official name) was enacted in 1976 and implemented in 1978. The primary purpose of the bottle bill was to help reduce roadside litter. Helping to reduce litter is great and all, but I saw the bottle bill as a money making opportunity.
I was twelve years old at the time and my primary mode of transportation was my bike. I would frequently ride my bike to Carl’s Market, which was the store nearest to my house. It was three miles down highway M-28. All along the shoulders of the highway, down in the ditch and up the other side, nearly into the woods, were countless cans and bottles that motorists had given the heave out the window. At the time the bottle bill took effect many people were still used to throwing their empties out the window, and not giving a second thought to the deposit.
Throughout my childhood I never had an allowance. I had to earn money by working, babysitting, playing poker, or scrounging change out of seat cushions. This returnable bottle stuff opened up a new channel of income.
My best friend Denny and I had the idea that we would tie bags to our handlebars and collect returnables on a ride to the store. Our primary goal was to buy cigarettes. At that time cigarettes cost fifty-cents a pack. That meant that we would each have to find five ten-cent cans or bottles in order to get our own cigarettes. Ten returnables in three miles was not going to be a problem.
Out on the highway we found that collecting returnables was a little more difficult than we thought it might be. It wasn’t that there weren’t any out there— there were plenty and we had our minimum ten in short order—the trouble was that there were tons of pre-deposit cans and bottles out there as well, and we had to scrutinize every one to make sure that it had the required “Michigan ten-cent refund” stamped on it.
By the time we arrived at Carl’s Market we probably had collected nearly twenty returnables each. We started to think that we might be able to double that if we rode the two additional miles into Harvey, the nearest town.
We pressed on.
Instead of sticking to the highway, we rode down Lakewood Land, which paralleled the highway but wasn’t as boring. This was a mistake of sorts. The area was very residential, and it didn’t see the kind of traffic that the highway did, and as a result there weren’t as many returnables. Even with fewer returnables to collect we still ended up with an extra buck or so each. The whole ride took us an hour or two, and while the amount of money we got for the returnables wouldn’t quite add up to minimum wage, it wasn’t bad for a couple of kids out for a bike ride.
This thought brought me around to the present.
I don’t think we would have even attempted such a thing these days, at least not for cigarettes. From what I understand, cigarettes cost roughly five dollars a pack now. That would mean we would have to collect fifty returnables each for our own pack of cigarettes. There is no way that would happen in a three mile stretch of highway even with the careless attitude people had at the time. I’d bet that in most areas you could scour ten miles of highway and not come up with fifty returnable containers.
Inflation has done in the value of a returnable. Thankfully the bottle bill has largely done what it was supposed to do and has significantly reduced the amount of beverage containers scattered along the roadside. It’s a good thing too because I don’t think kids today would put in the kind of effort we did for the exact same pay as we got thirty-some years ago.
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