WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — The wait is almost over for Michigan residents itching to cash in cans and bottles they’ve collected since return areas shut down more than two months ago.

On Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted her safer-at-home order, which temporarily closed bottle return areas.

The Michigan Department of Treasury says all retailers exclusively using reverse vending machines housed in a separate area or at the front of their store must reopen beginning June 15.

The treasury department deemed this Phase 1 of the reopening process, saying state-mandated safety guidelines must be followed.

The state is also giving retailers the option to roll out the following restrictions:

  • Limit the number of beverage containers that may be returned to $25 for each person per day.
  • Establish special or limited hours of operation for bottle return facilities.
  • Limit the number of available and operating reverse vending machines.
  • Periodically close bottle deposit facilities as needed for cleaning and supply management.
  • Implement such other procedures or restrictions as each retailer may determine are necessary or advisable to promote safety and/or efficiency.

News 8 reached out to Meijer and SpartanNash for their reopening plans, but has not yet heard back.

“Is it going to be a challenge? Absolutely. It’s going to be a huge challenge for all retailers,” said Tom Emmerich, chief operating officer for Schupan and Sons, Inc., which processes more than 75% of Michigan’s deposit containers at its facilities in Wyoming, Wixom and Kalamazoo.

As part of the first phase of reopening, retailers can only return 40% above the average amount of returnables they collected each week during April and May of last year.

(An undated courtesy photo from Schupan Recycling shows a TOMRA reverse vending machine, which will support a touchless sytem when return areas reopen. Once the bin is full of containers, store personnel pull the box out from under the machine, place a lid on the bin and never handle the contents.)

That’s the maximum amount of returnables Schupan and Sons, Inc. promised it could process. In a Friday interview with News 8, Emmerich said the company is “going to have to run as much as we possibly can” to accept 40% more than retailer’s normal load of returnables, but added that the capacity is limited because “we only have so many assets in the system.”

Emmerich says it will still take at least 20-25 weeks to process the more than 600 million deposit containers Michiganders have stockpiled. Other groups say it could take even longer to get through the glut of returnables.

“I’ve spoken with some retail communities that think it’s going to take over a year to get caught up,” said Emmerich.

Whitmer shut down return areas on March 24, deeming the service “not necessary to sustain or protect human life” in her executive order aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus.”

“The temporary suspension supported Michigan’s fight against the coronavirus by permitting grocery stores and other retailers to immediately shift employees from container collection and deposit redemption duties to other areas where they were more urgently needed, and to protect the health and safety of retailers, their employees, and all Michigan citizens,” the Michigan Department of Treasury explained Monday.

Emmerich says every week return areas have been closed, the statewide stockpile of depositable cans and bottles has grown by 70 million containers – equivalent to $7 million owed to customers.

“People are going to want their dime back. We know they want it back,” said Emmerich. “These are real dollars and it’s real people’s lives that are being affected by this.”

Emmerich says the economic impact to Schupan and Sons has also been “drastic,” with the processor, TOMRA and other glass and aluminum recyclers losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every week the return system is stalled.

“Now, will some of that be made up when the system gets turned back on? Likely, but we’ll never get all of it back by any stretch,” he added.

That’s because some residents aren’t waiting for return areas to reopen. In a Wednesday forum with recycling industry leaders, Kent County Department of Public Works Director Darwin Baas said the number of depositable cans turning up in county recycling bins is 2.5 times higher since the pandemic started.

kent county recycling center 061118_1528746753162.jpg.jpg
(An undated file image shows the inside of the Kent County Recycling and Education Center.)

Emmerich says the company has been able to pay its employees for the last eight weeks while establishing COVID-19 health and safety guidelines for when they return.

“I think our employees are ready to come back. I know they’re ready to come back,” he said.