Nonprofit challenges grocers’ petition to ease bottle bill requirements

By: - August 12, 2020 5:19 pm

(Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A nonprofit group that has supported Iowa’s beverage container deposit bill has filed a petition with a state agency to block grocers’ latest attempt to change the rules. 

Cleaner Iowa Inc., representing recyclers and others supporting the 1979 anti-litter “bottle bill,” has asked to be included in deliberations over two petitions the Iowa Grocery Industry Association has filed in an attempt to change the state’s rules on redemption centers. 

“All Iowans have an interest in this matter because the bottle bill and its related regulations have reduced litter and encouraged recycling,” the organization’s petition says in its petition to intervene.

The fight is over the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ informal decision that grocers may decline to accept cans and bottles when customers request their nickel per container deposit back, if the store formally directs customers to an approved redemption center that is within a 10-minute one-way drive. 

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association has supported shifting the containers to curbside recycling program, citing the filth and hassle of handling the containers, and has offered to help pay for the change. In March, the association petitioned for a rulemaking at DNR to formally set a “convenience” standard for redemption centers, arguing that a one-way drive of 15 miles should be declared convenient.

DNR has maintained that the Iowa Legislature would have to make that decision. That petition, which Cleaner Iowa had opposed, was withdrawn.

The grocers now are asking for a declaratory order on whether the DNR has the right to enforce the four-decade-old, 10-minute drive guideline for “convenience.” 

“After for decades of administration of (Iowa Code) Chapter 455C by the department, the rights of (grocer association”) members have been increasingly disregarded,” the grocers maintain in the petition.

A second petition filed by the grocers asks if the stores can designate a redemption center to take containers that otherwise would go back to the grocery store, without approval from the center itself.

Cleaner Iowa has opposed the moves. 

“On one hand, the grocers’ lobby is arguing that for 40 years the DNR has been using the wrong methodology to determine consumer convenience,” Mick Barry, President of Mid-America Recycling in Des Moines, said in a statement. “But on the other hand, they’re saying they shouldn’t have to take back cans at all because of the supposed health risk. And now Fareway has decided to defy the law and reject empties altogether.”

Barry noted that legislators considered several bills this year that would have amended the bottle bill, but didn’t act on them. He said that could be seen as an endorsement of the present system.

Changes to the bottle bill are proposed each year, but often stall amid differences of opinion on whether the bill should be expanded to include more containers, changed to increase the deposit, or thrown out altogether in favor of curbside or drop-off recycling with no deposits. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds granted the grocers’ pandemic-related request to to refuse the containers for weeks, but allowed that waiver to expire on July 25th. Fareway, one of the largest grocery chains in the state, announced it would not accept the containers. “Allowing used containers to be returned in our stores puts our employees and customers at risk, and runs counterproductive to the many safety and sanitation initiatives we have implemented in order to keep people safe,” Fareway said in a statement.

On Thursday, the Arlington-Va.-based Glass Packaging Institute, questioned Fareway’s move. “This is merely another attempt to undermine the law that the (grocer association) has battled for years, using COVID-19 as an excuse to try and do an end-around on the Legislature, when  they have lost prior battles.” The institute maintained that customers should be able to return containers to major retailers, rather than redemption centers. 

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