Cleaner Iowa petitions state to block grocers’ proposed bottle bill overhaul

By: - May 26, 2020 9:59 pm

(Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa should block grocers’ attempt to shift bottle and can redemption from their stores to redemption centers as much as 15 miles away, the nonprofit Cleaner Iowa Inc. urges in a petition to be filed Wednesday. 

“Iowa has one of the best recycling rates in the country because of our bottle bill, which makes it convenient to claim your deposit,” Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling, said in a statement. “If we make it more difficult to turn in cans, our redemption rate will fall, and we’ll start seeing much more litter. And that is exactly what would happen if the DNR allows the (grocers) to expand the convenience zone from 10 minutes to 15 miles.”

The group planned to filed the petition with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources weeks after Iowa Capital Dispatch broke the story that Iowa grocers want to make permanent Gov. Kim Reynolds’ now temporary order letting grocers turn away the deposit-carrying beverage containers while the coronavirus pandemic continues. 

Grocers had asked for the reprieve, arguing that extra cleaning and safety measures would take too much time to deal with can and bottle returns.

Reynolds on Tuesday signed a proclamation extending the waiver to the state’s bottle deposit law until at least June 25. She did not specify, when asked by a reporter last week, when she would lift the waiver.  “You know, for a while … I don’t anticipate removing a lot of the regulatory amendments that we put in place,” she said May 22.  

The Cleaner Iowa group contends changes pushed in the grocers’ own petition to DNR would kill the bottle bill, at least at grocery and convenience stores.

In fact, the president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, Michelle Hurd, told Capital Dispatch in late March that the grocers clearly hope the temporary reprieve from accepting the beer and soda cans and giving customers their nickel deposits back becomes permanent. 

Grocers say taking the containers back is a pain and itself a health threat. The containers often are crushed and filthy and in some cases have to be carried through a store and past produce, meat and other goods that could be contaminated, Hurd said.

The grocery association has offered to help pay to shift the redemption to special centers or to curbside recycling programs. In the past, DNR has fought those efforts, fearing litter — the original target of the 1979 bottle bill — would increase.

Redemption rates have fallen to 71% from nearly 90%, but Cleaner Iowa notes that is higher than other states with deposit laws and triple the rate in states with no deposits.

The nickel deposit has never been raised to help pay expenses for getting the containers to recyclers, despite many proposals to do that. Cleaner Iowa estimated the bottle bill keeps 1.7 billion containers out of landfills each year.

One of the changes pushed by grocers would shelve the DNR’s informal guideline that a store select a redemption center within a 10-minute drive if it is going to refuse bottles and cans, to a 15-mile one-way drive. Grocers point out that some dollar stores, hardware stores and others that sell beverages aren’t taking the containers back — or posting a listing for a redemption center — and they should, Hurd said.

Barry said the grocers’ proposals could mean in places such as Polk County, one or two redemption centers could end up serving hundreds of thousands of people.

“More than 216,000 people live in the city of Des Moines alone. Then you’ve got everyone from West Des Moines, Ankeny, and all of the surrounding suburbs,” Barry said. “Imagine all of them having to haul their containers to one or two redemption centers — the long lines and gas costs. Most people wouldn’t bother.”

That 30-mile trip would be just as unpopular in rural Iowa, Barry added.

Can Shed owner Troy Willard said in a news release that the proposed changes “would let retailers shirk their responsibilities and hurt consumers.”

Cleaner Iowa claims the grocers’ proposed changes should be left to state lawmakers, who have been log-jammed on bottle bill debates for decades, and not DNR, which has limited authority over the law.

DNR staff is expected to review the petition before making a recommendation to the governor-appointed Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

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