Redemption center

Taylor Cammer uses the new Tomra rapid, bulk-sorting machine at Morrisville Beverage’s redemption center.

Ethan Hayes is ready for your plastic water bottles, your empty wine vessels, your hard cider cans.

As the manager of Morrisville Beverage, Hayes has overseen investment in a state of the art can and bottle sorter in the store’s redemption center and is urging the Legislature to update its 1970s-era bottle bill to send more stuff his way.

“We’ve become such a throwaway society, and not just for this but for a lot of products,” Hayes said. “This is one area where we can really reclaim some of that.”

The Vermont Senate Committee on Natural Resources is currently considering changes to the state’s beverage container redemption system law.

H.175, passed by the house last session, would expand the definition of beverage as it pertains to redeemable containers to include “all drinks in liquid form and intended for human consumption.” Exceptions include dairy products; plant-based beverages like soymilk or almond milk; infant formula; meal replacement drinks like Weight Watchers shakes; nonalcoholic cider; or wine in glass bottles.

There have also been calls to increase the deposit value from 5 cents to 10 cents, but Hayes doesn’t think there’s a high likelihood of that happening this go-around.

Hayes testified recently in favor of it, saying it’s good for businesses like his who take in revenue as reimbursements from beverage makers.

Bring on the bottles

At MoBev, gone is the old bottle room, where workers got their hands wet and sticky and practiced the art of tossing cans into myriad sorting buckets, all while counting the nickels under their breath as they went along.

The workers are still there, but the old system isn’t. It’s been replaced by a machine manufactured by Tomra that allows for rapid bulk sorting of metal and plastic beer and soda cans and bottles. Customers just empty their bags or boxes into the machine, close the door and wait for it to spit out a receipt that customers exchange for cash at the counter.

Hayes said the store was the first privately-owned redemption center in the nation to get the newest Tomra, when it was installed last October. He said, for the most part, people enjoy it — there are some people who don’t like change or high-tech gadgetry.

The system has freed up the MoBev redemption center to make other upgrades, cleaning up the bottle room and starting other initiatives. The center recently purchased a trailer and is poised to go out into the community and collect materials for fundraisers and bottle drives.

“We’ve kept all the same staff and haven’t cut one hour of labor,” Hayes said. “So, our staff is more engaged with the customers, helping them use the machine, doing hand counts for days when the machine has a hiccup, or we have a large volume of customers who don’t want to wait.”

Hayes said the store invested in the new technology partly out of anticipation of a new bottle bill being passed. He understands other small retailers might have trouble keeping up with the volume if things like water bottles get included in the mix.

But, he said, even if the bill just makes water bottles redeemable — including flavored water or energy drinks like Gatorade — that could be a significant diversion from the waste stream.

He said when the bottle bill was first implemented in 1973, most of the materials being redeemed were truly bottles, glass ones, with aluminum cans in second place. Now, more craft brewers and seltzer makers are placing their materials in cans, and other non-dairy beverages, from water to juice to soda, are part of a whole universe of plastic containers that didn’t exist 50 years ago.

“Containers have changed so much since the bottle bill was enacted,” Hayes said. “There’s so much more plastic and there are so many more cans out there that are just not captured by the current system.”

He sees the bottle bill as an evolution. For instance, it was amended in 1990 to allow for the redemption of liquor bottles, but wine bottles are still tossed in the recycling bin. Hayes doesn’t see wine bottles addressed in this current update to the bottle bill, but he also isn’t keen on seeing wine bottles end up in the same bin as the egg cartons or pickle jars.

Susan Alexander, manager of the Lamoille Regional Solid Waste Management District, said glass is a tricky part of the waste stream, because it can wreak havoc on other co-mingled materials — shredding paper and getting stuck in the gears of the machinery at the regional Materials Recovery Facility (or MRF, pronounced “merf”) which is where most recyclables that aren’t separated out for, say, redemption, end up.

The district recently started a glass collection system — a recycling program within a recycling program — and can keep that fragile shatter-prone material out of its recycling shipments to the recovery facility, and instead sends glass to All Metals Recycling in Hardwick, which has greater capacity than the district transfer stations.

“It costs us less than shipping it to the MRF,” Alexander said. “We are able to move that material now at half the price.”

Hayes said the pandemic has underlined the idea that the more things that can be kept in a closed-loop system, the better. Beverage manufactures all over the world are alarmed at the rising cost of aluminum for cans, and glass is also getting expensive and scarcer, and they rely on being able to recoup their old vessels.

All the while, plastic continues to end up in landfills because not everyone is fastidious about separating out their trash and their recycling — and in Vermont, there are also food scraps and redeemables to separate out.

“Anything we can do will help the supply chain overall, because these problems are not going away overnight,” Hayes said.

Mixed opinions from managers

Hayes acknowledges that while redemption center operators are bullish on the bottle bill, others feel change will hurt their bottom lines.

“It has some strong support in some quarters, and some drag in other quarters,” Alexander said.

The support comes from bottle redemption areas, like Morrisville Beverage. The drag comes from trash and recycling haulers, who will lose some of their revenue if people divert more materials away from the blue bins or black bags and into the can counter or hand sorters.

Alexander said the district’s main concern is that any changes to increase the number of items that can be redeemed comes with extra compensation for the waste management employees who could see their workload nearly double.

She said redemption centers are reimbursed 3.5 cents per can or bottle they handle, and she would like to see that go up closer to the actual amount of the deposit charged per container.

“We’re happy to be innovative and do the right thing to collect the right thing,” she said. “But for us, the main thing would be a higher level of compensation, because three and a half cents isn’t going to cover it.”

There are proposals to raise the deposit to 10 cents per item, but Alexander doesn’t think that will move the needle much as far as how many people sort out their redeemables.

“The people who are already redeeming are going to keep doing it,” she said, noting those who don’t aren’t very likely to change their habits.

Alexander’s other concern is the amount of extra space needed for things like water bottles — or even gallon water jugs, which could be included. Those plastic bottles take up a lot of room since they are mainly air. The Lamoille waste district has a 52-foot truck at the Stowe transfer station for its redeemables, which fills up quickly.

The sorting area in Stowe is also already pushing its boundaries, with somewhere between 800 and 1,000 square feet dedicated to the more than 30 different sorting bins that beverage manufacturers and distributors require redemption centers to organize and maintain.

“Just the sheer number of water bottles would overwhelm us quickly,” Alexander said.

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