Grocers, environmental advocates spar as bottle bill changes move through Senate

A proposal to overhaul Iowa's bottle bill is advancing in the Legislature. (Photo by Dennis Young via Pixabay)

Grocery lobbyists commended a bottle bill proposal moving through the Iowa Senate, but redemption centers and environmental advocates still have concerns.

Senate File 470 would make it optional for grocery stores to offer can and bottle redemption if they are within 20 miles of a redemption center. It would also raise handling fees from 1 cent to 2 cents per container.

The proposal comes after a tumultuous year for the bottle redemption program. In March 2020, Gov. Kim Reynolds temporarily suspended the program due to concerns that COVID-19 was transmitted from shared surfaces. Redemptions resumed in July as businesses reopened and experts determined COVID-19 was primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets.

Some stores, however, continued to refuse to take bottle returns. Fareway still does not accept can or bottle deposits, according to the brand’s website.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association tried to sue the Department of Natural Resources to set the 20-mile standard in the bill, but a judge dismissed the case Wednesday.

Grocery store lobbyists, including a representative for Fareway, spoke in support of Senate File 470 in a Wednesday subcommittee. Brad Epperly, lobbyist for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, said the increased handling fee and the ability for stores to opt out were both needed changes to the program.

“Sen. (Ken) Rozenboom’s bill here is the closest thing to correcting the undisputed facts that this system suffers from,” Epperly said. “That is inefficiency, costliness, falling redemption rates, and it gets it out of the stores.”

Other lobbyists were concerned that the changes would deteriorate the current system. Sierra Club representative Jess Mazour said that requiring customers to drive out of their way to a redemption center, rather than to their local grocery store, would discourage people from using the program.

“Citizens like the bottle bill,” Mazour said. “We should expand it and we should not take it out of the grocery store.”

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, responded that the changes were necessary, even if it might mean longer drives for Iowans trying to return their cans.

“We have to be sympathetic to the infrastructure out there,” Dawson said. “Just because we like something doesn’t mean we can pass an unfunded mandate onto all these industries.” 

The bottle bill has been a legislative sore spot for several years. Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate agree the current law is faulty — Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said the program was “eroding” but have struggled to find a solution that satisfies retailers, distributors, redemption centers and citizens.

“If we have nine different bills filed … between both chambers, something needs to happen on this,” Dawson said. 

The House considered a similar bill, House File 814, that would allow stores to discontinue their redemption programs if a nearby redemption center agreed to accept containers on their behalf. Despite bipartisan discomfort with the proposal, the bill passed in committee, but it likely will not survive Friday’s legislative deadline.