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Bottle deposit law remains a hot-button issue

By James Grob,

Iowa Rep. Todd Prichard wasn’t surprised that Iowa’s bottle redemption law was a hot topic last week when four state legislators met with a group of retired teachers in Charles City.

“Of all the issues that come up in the Legislature, as soon as the words ‘bottle bill’ hit the papers, the emails start to pour in,” Prichard said. “We love our bottle bill because we see how other nearby states have all their ditches full of bottles.”

Prichard, along with Sen. Waylon Brown, Sen. Amanda Ragan, and Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, were all at the event, held at Charles City’s NIACC location. The forum was a Q&A hosted by the Big 4 Unit of the Iowa Retired School Personnel Association (IRSPA).

“Please keep our recycling and bottle deposit program intact,” one of those in attendance said. “Whatever you have to do, keep that.”

Prichard said the Iowa Legislature wasn’t likely to repeal the law any time soon.

“I don’t think there’s any appetite in the Iowa House to get rid of it,” he said. “There has to be some tweaks to the system, though.”

Iowa’s Beverage Container Deposit Law, enacted in 1978 for the purpose of litter control, offers a 5 cent deposit for glass, plastic and metal containers that hold beer, carbonated soft drinks, mineral water, wine coolers and liquor.

It also required that beverage distributors pay redemption centers one cent for every can and bottle they processed.

Most agree that the bottle bill did much to clean up litter along roads, ditches and waterways, and encouraged recycling.

Four decades later, however, Prichard said local redemption centers are struggling to keep their doors open.

“They only get so much and the distributor gets the rest,” he said. “Their margins are too short.”

The cost of living in Iowa has gone up since 1978, but the handling fee for distributors has stayed the same.

In testimony in front of the Iowa House and Senate, Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes said if the deposit and handling fee had been adjusted for inflation the deposit would be 17 cents today, and redemption centers would be getting 3 cents per container.

Prichard said many redemption center owners say they cannot afford the overhead it costs to stay in business.

Grocery stores don’t want to have to handle the cans. Ragan said she cannot get bottles recycled in Mason City.

“Wal-Mart’s not taking them. Legally they have to, but they’re not taking them,” she said. “It’s hard for people to find a place, so we need to make sure it’s worthwhile for people to do it.”

Brown said he empathized with the grocery stores.

“I understand the argument — especially with small grocery stores — not wanting all those cans and bottles in there,” Brown said. “That bag of empty garbage is right next to the food that’s going to go out on the shelves. That’s not sanitary.”

One retired educator at the forum pointed to the redemption law as an example of how times change but the state Legislature doesn’t. He said that the redemption guy “who’s getting 1 cent per bottle 25 years ago still has to live on that 1 cent per bottle today.”

“That’s just plain ridiculous,” the person said. “Not being able to make those kinds of adjustments on a bipartisan issue is just simply ridiculous.”

Prichard said that larger grocery stores in communities often subsidize redemption centers.

“The law is that if there’s a redemption center in the community, they are exempt from having to redeem cans or bottles,” he said.

Brown said that the Iowa Senate is now looking at a different redemption system. He said there would be unstaffed trailers at drop locations throughout the state.

“What you do is you get a serial code or barcode associated directly to you, and then you take your cans to this, and somehow it’s computerized,” Brown said. “It reads your bar code and then that money goes directly to your bank account, or you can designate a charity that money goes directly to.”

He said that eventually, advanced technology might provide an answer to the bottle redemption question.

“There are things being looked at to basically take advantage of some technologies that we have now that we didn’t have before,” Brown said.