Many of you have reached out to me to share your experience and frustrations around being unable to effectively return to your bottles, whether that be at a Clynk drop off location, a local redemption center, or even to donate your returnable bottles and cans to your local transfer station, or other nonprofit organization. Because of your outreach, I’ve spent the summer digging into why this has become such a problem in our community.

The main reason is that the cost associated with sorting, which is set in statute, has not been able to keep up with the rising costs of labor. In our area, increased real estate values have also made it difficult for redemption centers to stay in business, and the recent heat waves with the return of tourism have increased the numbers of beverages sold, and added to the problem.

Currently, a consumer who pays 5 cents at the checkout can only be reimbursed when they return their containers to a redemption center. The redemption center is reimbursed the nickel they pay back to the consumers by the manufacturer, plus a small handling fee of 4 ½ cents. This level of reimbursement is not sufficient for most redemption centers to pay competitive wages, especially during a time when we are experiencing steep rent increases across the state. While many cans and bottles can be commingled at the redemption center, 20% of everything sold currently has to be sorted by manufacturer, adding to the labor costs. In fact, there are about 300 separate sorts in Maine.

I recently learned of one solution after visiting the Clynk facility in Oakland. Here, Clynk uses a high speed “reverse vending machine” to scan the bar code of each container, crush all of the material and package it up for pick up. The scanning of the bar code provides the information needed to determine which consumers redeem which products. It also tells manufactures what percentage of what Clynk has processed is credited to the manufacturer.

One Clynk proposal is to continue to process all of the material but only scan 20% of it, and then extrapolate the percentages that each manufacturer is to be credited. In other words, if 10% of the containers scanned by Clynk belong to Pepsi, then 10% of the entire material that is crushed would be credited to Pepsi. As a result, redemption centers would no longer need to sort the containers by manufacturer and instead, need only to sort the containers based on whether it is plastic, glass, or aluminum. This solution would speed up the current system by simplifying the sort system and reduce costs to the redemption centers.

While I work to find other solutions, I’ve learned there are some methods that will not work. In Woolwich, where I live, we have curbside pickup for recyclables. In communities where a similar service is available, adding returnables to the list of items to be picked up would increase the amount towns pay for these materials. This could also expand the need for trucks to transport and increase the frequency of the pick-up.

A sustainable solution is one that ensures consumers receive their 5-cent investment back, while supporting the small, local redemption centers that help to reduce the size of our landfills

and keeps our roadsides clean. While I don’t have all the answers right now, I’m committed to working on something that will relieve the congestion. Based on what I’ve heard from my constituents, there is consumer demand for recycled material, and folks are invested in a system that recycles, reuses, and reimburses. As I begin to think of policy avenues, I hope you will continue to reach out to me with your ideas so that we can find a solution together.

Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, serves District 53, representing Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, Woolwich and part of Richmond in the Maine Legislature.

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