Rows and rows of boxes full of returnable bottles can be found inside Seiders Redemption Center in Hodgdon. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Press

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Tori Bacall is a student at Bowdoin College pursuing a coordinate major in environmental studies and biology.

In the last year and a half, 50 to 60 bottle redemption centers in Maine have been forced to shut down due to financial challenges. If action is not taken quickly, the success of Maine’s recycling program could be in jeopardy. While many think of recycling as a simple individual action that reduces environmental impacts, the fact of the matter is that much of Maine’s recycling success is enabled by redemption centers, which require sufficient financial inputs in order to function.

The “Bottle Bill” program, which began in Maine in 1978, puts a 5- to 15-cent deposit fee on beverage containers. Consumers pay this deposit when they purchase bottled beverages and can get reimbursed by redeeming their empty containers at a redemption center. Redemption centers sort the bottles, which are then picked up by beverage companies. The companies pay the redemption center the deposit as well as a handling fee for their efforts. The handling fee allows redemption centers to make money, which allows them to pay their employees and keep the centers functioning.

This policy has been very successful. Redemption centers recycle 40,000 tons of material each year, accounting for 60% of all plastic recycled in the state and 100% of glass recycling, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Additionally, it has resulted in a significant reduction in roadside litter.

Recent inflation has increased oil and energy prices, which has increased the cost of running redemption centers. Unlike other industries, redemption centers cannot simply raise their prices. The handling fee that companies pay to redemption centers is set in statute by the Maine Legislature; thus, it requires state intervention to increase their revenue. As inflation has increased operational costs and the handling fee has stayed the same, redemption centers have been forced to shut down.

Considering the significant contribution redemption centers make to the state’s recycling efforts, their closures threaten to increase waste and jeopardize the state’s ability to achieve its recycling goals.

By the year 2026, Maine law will require 25 percent of all plastic beverage containers sold to be made with recycled plastic. Redemption centers are the main source of recycled plastic, thus it will be difficult to achieve this if redemption centers continue to shut down. Forced closure of redemption centers will also impact hundreds of Mainers who have built their livelihoods running these small businesses.

Luckily, Maine has already begun to address this issue. An amended bottle bill was recently passed by the state Legislature. This bill, LD 134, will increase the handling fee for beverage companies to 6 cents per container beginning in September. This is promising, as increasing the handling fee would make up for increased operational costs, allowing redemption centers to stay in business.

On top of this, Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, has introduced a bill that simplifies the sorting process and makes the processing and pick-up of beverage containers more efficient and cost-effective. If enacted, this bill will earmark “unredeemed deposits” funding to support improvement of the bottle redemption program. Currently, this money mostly stays with beverage companies. Hepler’s bill would further protect redemption centers from inflation, and therefore help to ensure that Maine can stay on track to achieve its recycling goals.

Recycling is more complex than just putting cardboard in a blue bin. Redemption centers are key to the success of recycling in Maine and they require sufficient financial input in order to function. Thus, it is important that Mainers not only appreciate the contribution of redemption centers to the state’s recycling program but also support policies that will sustain their ability to function.