DNR denies grocers’ bid to loosen redemption center rules

By: - September 30, 2020 12:29 pm

(Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A state agency has denied grocers’ attempt to change the rules on where customers can take cans and bottles to collect deposits.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday denied the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s petition asking the department to set a clearer standard for “convenience” in deciding how far Iowans will be asked to drive to a redemption center if their local grocer or other retailer selling the cans and bottles declines to take them back. Iowa law allows that only if the retailer directs customers to a local redemption center. 

DNR has required grocers to direct customers to a redemption center that would be a 10-minute trip. The grocers’ association wanted to change that to allow centers within a 15-mile one-way drive. 

DNR Director Kayla Lyon wrote that those details are up to the Iowa Legislature. She also noted that the agency couldn’t grant the grocers’ petition because those affected, in this case grocery store customers across the state, hadn’t had a chance to be heard on the issue. DNR gave grocers 15 minutes to make their case in a requested hearing. 

Grocers have lobbied for years to scrap the state’s required bottle deposit system, which began in 1979, in favor of curbside and drop-off recycling programs they offered to help fund. 

The nonprofit Cleaner Iowa, which opposed the petition, praised the decision.

“For decades, retail redemption has been the engine that keeps Iowa’s bottle bill running,” said Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling. “Many counties don’t have redemption centers, making it even more vital that grocery stores accept empty containers. Removing the convenience zone would have essentially dismantled the bottle bill by making redemption so onerous that consumers would just give up and accept the five-cent deposit as a tax. DNR made the right decision in denying IGIA’s petition request.”

The “bottle bill,” requiring a nickel deposit in beer and soda cans and wine and liquor bottles, was passed as an anti-litter measure. Cleaner Iowa estimated the bottle bill keeps 1.7 billion containers out of landfills each year.

Neither the amount of the deposit nor the amount paid to those who handle the returned containers has changed since the law took effect in 1979.

The grocers’ association, which filed a new petition on Tuesday, said it will consider more actions.

“How the DNR handled this process was disappointing,” association President Michelle Hurd said. “We are extremely disappointed that they haven’t made a formal rule in 40 years. We are likely to look at other remedies and other actions.”

Every year, bills to scrap or expand the deposit program are proposed in the Iowa Legislature. They have regularly stalled up to this point. 

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.

Hurd has said grocers don’t want the filth on the cans and bottles returned to stores. They also object to being required to take the containers when many others who sell them, including convenience and hardware stores, sporting goods outlets and other retailers, have ignored the law requiring them to take the containers if they sell the products. 

The association filed a new petition with DNR on Tuesday seeking to force those other retailers to abide by the deposit law. The petition names dozens of locations, including dollar stores and hardware outlets, the association contends are in violation of the deposit law.

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