COVID-19 has suspended bottle returns; grocers want to make that permanent

By: - March 29, 2020 11:57 am

(Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa grocers hope a temporary reprieve from accepting empty beverage cans and bottles from customers will become permanent, the head of their association acknowledged.

But in case that doesn’t happen, grocers and convenience stores in the Iowa Grocery Industry Association also have petitioned the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to change how the so-called bottle bill is enforced. And they continue to support proposed legislation to scrap or overhaul the bottle bill with its familiar nickel per container deposit. The association includes 1,400 locations.

Association President Michelle Hurd said her organization pushed for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ March 17 order allowing grocery stores and others that sell the canned and bottled beverages to turn away the returned containers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We knew we were going to get slammed” by people hoarding toilet paper and other supplies, and returning their cans and bottles while they were at it, Hurd said. Much of the concern was staffing, on top of the grocers’ standing complaint about the containers being unsanitary, she added. 

“We preach how unclean the containers are,” Hurd said. “The virus can live on metal” for an undetermined time, she added.

Hurd said grocers would welcome an end to the bottle bill or short of that, an end to returning the containers to stores. 

“It does bring up a long-term conversation when the time is right,” Hurd said. “This is something we are fearful of. We don’t think the containers belong in retail situations. I’d hate for something to happen. We think curbside recycling would be best.”

Scrap the bottle bill?

Efforts over a couple of decades to change the popular law have stalled in each legislative session.

Iowa’s bottle bill took effect in 1979. It was an effort to keep bottles and cans out of ditches.

The law hasn’t been changed significantly since it took effect. Customers pay a nickel deposit on beer and soft drink containers, then return them to the store to get their nickels back. Or they can just recycle the cans and bottles and give up the nickel. Some throw them in the trash. 

A complicated system sends parts of the nickel through distributors, grocers and redemption centers who get the aluminum cans to recyclers. 

The grocery association recently hedged its bets by filing the DNR petition demanding changes that would make it easier to shift the deposit-carrying cans and bottoms to redemption centers.

The petition asks for four things: 

  • Language that would allow grocers to divert the cans to approved redemption centers within 15 miles. The current practice, which the Iowa Department of Natural Resources never formally established by rule, allows grocers to refuse the containers if they refer people to an approved redemption center that’s no more than a 10 minute, one-way drive away. “There is nothing in the code that defines what the convenience standard is,” Hurd said. “Right now it is up to the interpretation of DNR. The majority of the burden falls on grocery and convenience stores.”
  • DNR and the attorney general’s office be designated as the enforcers of a state law requiring any business that sells drinks in the containers to take the returns. Now, many hardware and small discount stores, sporting good shops and others sell sodas and the like but tell customers to take them to a grocery store. The grocery association confirmed this by contacting a variety of stores earlier this year and asking if they accepted bottle and can returns.

“We want equity in the system,” Hurd said. “There is a lack of enforcement.”

  • Ensure that customers get their full nickel deposit back. Some redemption centers have tried giving back only four cents, keeping a penny as a fee, which is illegal. 
  • Remove a requirement that an approved redemption center has to agree in advance to take containers from each store asking for its services.

“The department has established, without statute, rule or guidance that the standard is a 10-minute drive between the dealer and an approved redemption center,” the grocery association petition reads. “This timing is determined through a web search engine tool. Through correspondence with the department it has been stated that their internal convenience standard has ‘evolved’ from a single mile to their current 20-minute round trip standard. All without agency rulemaking.” 

The association also noted that DNR’s website shows approved redemption centers that are more than 20 miles from the stores they serve — easily over a 20-minute roundtrip. For example, Nickelback Redemption Center LLC is approved to take containers for the Pronto station in Fairbank, 20.6 miles away, DNR records show.

Grocers also point out that state transportation records that an average Iowa commuter drives 19.4 minutes one way to work and more than 25 minutes in rural areas. 

DNR: Defining convenience is ‘a challenge’

Alex Moon, deputy director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the state has struggled with what to do with stores that choose to direct customers to a redemption center.

“It’s a challenge,” Moon said. “What one person says is convenient isn’t for someone else. It just evolved. We landed on minutes rather than miles. It’s been a long time, and most seemed OK with that.”

Moon said there may be merit in looking at each redemption center case by case. 

Moon said DNR will review the petition before seeking public comment through outreach to stakeholders and possibly online, given the COVID-19 outbreak. Eventually, the governor-appointed Iowa Environmental Protection Commission will weigh in. 

DNR has limited power to enforce the bottle bill past approving redemption centers, Moon said. Anyone who is given less than a nickel back per can could call the police or sheriff. That offense is a misdemeanor, Moon said. Refusing to take cans and bottles without posting a sign directing customers to an approved redemption center also is a misdemeanor. 

Moon said there has been some talk among legislators of increasing the power of DNR and the attorney general’s office to do something to enforce the bottle bill, rather than having aggrieved can returners calling police officers for help. 

“All stores should be taking the cans and bottles back unless they have arranged a redemption center,” Moon added.

Grocers offer $9M for redemption centers

If lawmakers would prefer a system of redemption centers, retailers are willing to pay half a cent a container for three years to help set them up — a $9 million cash infusion, Hurd said. 

Backers of the bottle bill have argued that switching the containers to the widespread curbside and drop-off recycling services in Iowa would reduce the number of returned containers and increase litter in ditches.

But return rates have fallen in recent years as the nickel deposit in place since 1979 continued to lose value. 

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 71% of containers with a deposit are returned. That is down from 86% in 2007 and 93% in 2000. 

At the same time, Hurd said, one Iowa grocery store along the Mississippi River had to expand the store twice and build a warehouse to handle all the containers, some of which came from stores that should have been taking them back themselves, or using a redemption center. Some of those illegally turning away people returning cans and bottles are large national chain box stores, she added.

“We want a level playing field,” Hurd said. “This is a complex system that hasn’t changed in 40 years. Grocery really has changed. There is a desire to keep these containers out of stores.”

Dozens of redemption centers have closed in recent years. 

“There is no question that redemption centers are hurting,” said Pam Mackey Taylor, director of the Iowa Chapter of the nonprofit environmental group Sierra Club, which supports the bottle bill. “We favor increasing the fees paid to redemption centers,” which have been a penny a container, paid by distributors, since the law was enacted. 

Sierra Club: Keep the bottle bill, install kiosks?

Taylor said Sierra Club also would favor a proposed network of kiosks, an idea championed by beer business Doll Distributing in Des Moines. The kiosks would take the place of in-store machines and collection areas, and could be run by a third party so grocery stores wouldn’t have to deal with the containers. 

“That looks like a really promising thing,” Taylor said. “It is expensive. One of the bills would allow that to happen. We should be seriously looking at that.”

The idea that people should drive 30 miles round trip to use a redemption center is not as appealing, Taylor said. “You have to start evaluating whether it makes sense to make that drive,” she said.

“We should work with bottlers,” Taylor said. “I’m concerned with getting rid of the bottle bill.”

Proposals to scrap the bottle bill, set up the kiosk network, or change how redemption centers are set up have circulated at the Iowa Legislature this year. But with the session postponed, a key lawmaker said there hasn’t been recent talk about what to do.

“Our focus has been on COVID-19 and how we can help Iowans through these challenging times,” said Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which has been assigned the bottle bill debate. “The fate of the bottle bill is yet to be seen. Given the current circumstances it would be presumptuous to suggest what will happen. There are a lot of differing ideas on how to resolve some of these issues around recycling and bottles,” Chapman added.

Grocers know where they stand.

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