Iowa grocers’ fight with the DNR over ‘bottle bill’ winds up in court

The Iowa DNR has turned down a petition from the Iowa Grocery Industry Association seeking changes in the rules governing beverage container deposit redemption centers. Now, the dispute is going before an Iowa judge. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa’s grocery stores are taking their fight over the state’s bottle-redemption law to court.

In September, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources denied the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s request for a clearer standard in determining the distance between redemption centers and grocery stores that seek authorization to refuse the return of bottles and cans.

Iowa law allows stores to refuse redemptions in cases where they can direct customers to a conveniently located redemption center. DNR policies specify that grocers can direct customers to a redemption center that is within a 10-minute drive from the store. The grocers’ association wants that changed so stores can refuse cans and bottles if there is a redemption center within 15 miles.

DNR Director Kayla Lyon has ruled such a change is up to the Iowa Legislature, while describing the existing standard as a reasonable benchmark. She has also stated that the agency can’t grant the grocers’ request because the people affected — the hundreds of thousands of Iowans who patronize grocery stores customers —haven’t had a chance to be heard on the issue.

The association is now appealing that ruling in Polk County District Court, arguing the 10-minute travel standard “has created ambiguity, confusion and inequity, and has resulted in unwarranted refusals to approve otherwise viable redemption centers.”

The association claims that Iowa law invalidates the application of any policy that has not gone through the formal rule-making process, and says Lyon abused her authority by enforcing a policy that has never been subject to public input and scrutiny.

The association is asking the court to rule that DNR’s “convenience standard” is invalid and to order the DNR to initiate a formal rule-making procedure to define “convenient.”

In its response, the DNR denies its actions are prejudicial to the association and asks the court to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing on the grocers’ petition has yet to be scheduled.

Iowa’s grocers have long sought elimination of the state’s so-called “bottle bill,” which became law in 1979, in favor of curbside and drop-off recycling programs they’ve offered to help fund. The law, which creates a 5-cent deposit on beer and soda cans as well as wine and liquor bottles, was passed as an anti-litter measure.

Grocers object to the unsanitary nature of the cans and bottles returned to their stores. They also say they’re required to take back the containers when many other retailers, including convenience stores, ignore the law requiring them to take back the containers if they sell the products.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.