Lawmakers advance plan to let grocers opt out of bottle bill

By: - February 18, 2021 2:30 pm

(Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Legislation that would allow grocers to opt out of the state’s bottle bill if there is a redemption center within 20 miles cleared a Senate subcommittee Thursday.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said Senate File 368 is intended to address concerns of grocers and others, and he hopes bigger issues can be addressed later.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom is a Republican from Oskaloosa.

The bill would let grocers and other beverage retailers refuse to take containers back for deposit returns under certain circumstances. It also would require the Alcoholic Beverages Division to handle new procedures for tracking unclaimed refunds and enforcing requirements of the new law.

Critics lined up at a subcommittee meeting to suggest the state’s bottle deposit law, largely unchanged since it was enacted in 1979, needs major work. Some contended it needs to be expanded.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, opposed the bill.

“The things I’m looking for in a bottle bill would be something that would be more convenient for consumers, would encourage recycling, would include more containers such as water bottles and then avoid litter in our landfills, water and the landscape,” Celsi told the committee. “And I am finding that the bill itself really doesn’t do any of that.” 

Rozenboom, who managed the bill, said the legislation would continue to be good for the environment and programs such as school bands that collect containers to raise money for uniforms.

State Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines. Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature.

“This is a plan to preserve and modernize this popular concept and streamline the process, correct the imbalances that exist, and, importantly after a year of battling a nasty virus, make the whole process healthier and safer for the public,” Rozenboom said. 

The bill also would shift unclaimed deposits to a “taxpayer relief fund” rather than letting distributors keep them. Estimates of that cash have run into tens of millions of dollars.

While raising the nickel deposit on cans and bottles might make sense, Rozenboom said, the bottle bill changes proposed over the past nine years have been too complicated, in his view. “I firmly believe that we need to make these fundamental changes now, and once we’ve established a new normal, we can begin to consider other tweaks to the program,” he said. 

Mixed opinions

Speakers at the meeting had varying opinions of the legislation. 

Jess Mazour of the Iowa Sierra Club said the bill fails to apply the deposit to sports drinks, ice teas and water containers that proliferated after the bill was originally passed. Sierra Club supports increasing the deposit, she added. 

She also took grocery chains to task for suggesting the COVID-19 pandemic is a reason to let stores decline to take bottle and can returns.

“They have been trying to repeal the bottle bill for a long time,” Mazour said. “If it was really about COVID, they also would not allow people to take their dry cleaning there or rent Rug Doctors from the store.

“We know that the bottle deposit law is wildly popular with Iowans and that you should expand it, not take this opportunity to gut it and make it less convenient for Iowans across the state,” Mazour added.

Waiting for stamp-choosers

Brad Epperly of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association said the current system is cumbersome. He has chosen to toss the containers into his recycling bin, giving up the deposit.

“I would, if I was taking them back to the grocery store, take the time to rinse them out, put them in my car, drive them to my grocery store, which is at least 10 minutes away. Then, depending on the grocery store rules I might have to spend time waiting in line feeding them into a machine where I get a ticket. 

“I go to a service counter and wait in line, perhaps, as somebody’s trying to select what kind of stamps they might buy that day before I get my ticket for what might be $2 or $3. That doesn’t sound convenient to me at all,” Epperly said. 

For grocers, the debate isn’t a financial one, he contended.

“The fact is, we’re not in the waste collection business. It’s not what we do,” Epperly said. “This is a government-imposed mandate. Municipal governments are responsible for waste collection.”

Customer: I wouldn’t drive 20 miles to redeem cans

Urbandale resident Jane Robinette said she would not drive 20 miles one-way to turn in her cans and bottles. “I think allowing grocers and other retailers to not be included in this program will make consumers that much less likely to participate,” she said.

Troy Willard, owner of the Can Shed, a redemption center serving a four-county area near Cedar Rapids, said the bill asks people to drive too far. “Twenty miles is just too far for a metropolitan area like mine,” Willard said. He said the legislation appears to remove penalties for anyone besides redemption centers who don’t recycle the containers, which are banned from landfills.

David Adelman, executive director of the Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors Association, said his organization opposes allowing grocery stores and other retailers to refuse to take cans and bottles, unless they have an agreement with a redemption center.

Adelman also said the bill as written would mean the grocery stores, not the wholesalers, would be responsible for getting the containers to recyclers.

RG Schwarm of the Iowa Recycling Association and Cleaner Iowa, said the rules governing the maximum distance to a redemption center would be altered in various areas depending on the population. He also favored an increase in the handling fees paid to those who take the containers to recyclers.

Amy Campbell of the League of Women Voters, which helped develop the original law, also said the handling fee should be increased. The bill considered Thursday does not adjust the fee.

Campbell said her group opposes the idea of having the Alcoholic Beverages Division involved in what has been a largely private network.

Jon Murphy of the Iowa Beverage Association said the current bottle bill lacks enforcement by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which hasn’t been given enough “enforcement capabilities.” 

The same issue could happen at the Alcoholic Beverages Division, he added.

Improving recycling

In written comments, Mick Barry, president of MidAmerica Recycling, said the bottle bill reduces costs of the curbside recycling programs around the state by improving the efficiency of recycling operations. Separating the beverage containers typically keeps them cleaner and boosts the price paid for the materials, he added.

While Iowa recovers 70% of containers carrying deposits, states using single-stream recycling to collect those bottles and cans see 32% recycled.

The state should guard against making recycling harder, Barry said. 

“By making it less convenient for consumers to redeem bottles and cans and relying more heavily on single stream recycling, our state’s recycling policy will move backwards, not forward,” Barry said.

He said the state should look at expanding the deposit to other containers and increasing the deposit to 10 cents per container.

“Raising the handling fee (would) also go a long way by helping to spur the opening of more redemption centers, particularly in rural areas where finding a convenient place to claim empties is often a challenge,” Barry said.

The bill moves next to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.