Inflation, labor shortages and the costly sorting of a growing array of bottles and cans are posing new challenges for redemption centers.
In this Feb. 11, 2011, file photo, a truck carrying bottles and cans pulls into Green Bee Redemption, a recycling center in Kittery. Credit: Joel Page / AP

Ever since it was implemented 45 years ago, Maine’s bottle deposit law has been credited with reducing litter and increasing recycling rates. That’s largely insulated it from sweeping changes.

But inflation, labor shortages and the costly sorting of a growing array of bottles and cans are posing new challenges for the program. State lawmakers are now considering a range of bills aimed at halting the spread of what’s known as “redemption center deserts.”

“I’m proud to say that I’m one of the original redemps,” Melodie Zale, a redemption center owner in Wilton, told the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday. “I’ve been in business 42 years. This is the first year in my life that I’ve had to borrow money to keep my doors open.”

She said that she and her husband have had difficult conversations about how long their business can limp along amid increased costs in electricity, heating and labor while their profits from returned bottles and cans dwindle.

Zale was one of several redemption center owners who supported a bill to increase the 4.5-cent handling fee that is key to their bottom line.

John Oliver, who operates a redemption center in Presque Isle, made the drive from Caribou to support the measure, which he hopes will provide stability in a costly environment that’s making it hard for him to compete with major retailers for workers.

“I think I handed out 36 tax forms last year at the end of the year for rollover employees,” Oliver said. “I do all I can to hand out bonuses and try to help out, but the price of us not being able to pay more because we can’t raise our prices and minimum wage going up, it’s been a real struggle.”

Zale and Oliver are among the 321 licensed redemption centers in Maine that hand out cash to people who return their 5- and 15-cent bottles and cans.

That’s the extent of the interaction most have with Maine’s bottle law, but increasingly people are finding that ritual to be more time consuming, or downright impossible, as redemption centers around the state close.

One former owner in South Portland got out of the business last summer citing an inability to compete with restaurants on wages. An owner in Brunswick said she closed a month ago after her rent more than doubled.

“There are 321 licensed redemption centers in the state. This means that 53 redemption centers have shut their doors since 2019,” Senate President Troy Jackson told the environment committee when presenting his bill to increase the handling fee.

Jackson, a Democrat from Allagash, is proposing to increase the handling fee by more than a penny and to tie future increases to the Consumer Price Index, a measurement of inflation.

If it passes, Jackson’s bill would mark the second time since 2019 that that the handling fee has increased.

But few of the bottle law’s supporters — and even fewer redemption center owners — believe that such a bump will be a panacea.

That’s because the program is far more complex than what it appears: Consumers simply returning their 5- and 15-cent bottles and cans at redemption centers in exchange for cash.

And according to Scott Wilson, director of the program at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, it’s growing in complexity along with the volume and type of beverage containers accepted in the program.

“It is the sorts. It’s the number of sorts. We just have way too many sorts,” he said.

If there was a dominant theme from Wednesday’s hearing and briefing by Wilson, it was about sorts.

It refers to the type of cans and bottles that must be collected — and sorted — into different containers so that recycling companies that collect from redemption centers can ship them for processing.

Wilson said there are hundreds of sorts, which means redemption centers have to make room for containers to hold them for pickup.

“And that’s taking up labor. It takes up space, because you have to have space for these boxes to put these things, and time,” Wilson added.

And time is no friend of the redemption centers, which don’t get paid until recycling companies pick up the sorted bottles and cans.

More exotic containers can sit in redemption centers for long periods.

And that means that the labor to sort them has been paid, along with the customer who received their refunded deposit, while the redemption center can’t recover those costs until recycling companies pick them up.

Solving that problem involves an array of stakeholders —beverage companies, redemption centers, recycling companies.

And that’s just one aspect of a bottle law that Wilson said has been very successful overall.

“But it probably needs a comprehensive look and a change to the way we do things,” he said.

There are nearly ten bills that aim to change the bottle law this session.

Supporters of the program hope at least one of them can save a program that collected and recycled some 850 million bottles and cans just last year.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.