Judge dismisses grocers’ lawsuit against DNR on bottle bill

Legislation to change the bottle bill is still alive this session. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A Polk County judge has dismissed a grocery industry group’s lawsuit over the state’s handling of bottle bill rules.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association asked the Iowa Department of Natural Resources several times to set a formal “convenience standard” that would allow grocers to decline to take containers back if any redemption center was available within 15 miles. Currently, DNR requires grocers to use a state-approved redemption center within a 10 minute one-way drive.

In a decision dated Tuesday, Polk County District Judge Jeanie Vaudt said the court is limited in what it can do in the fight between the grocers and DNR. “The district court’s limited jurisdiction on judicial review prevents the court from considering the merits of IGIA’s petition for declaratory order before IDNR,” she wrote. 

“Considering IDNR’s reasons for declining to issue a declaratory order, the court finds IDNR’s actions were not irrational, illogical or wholly unjustifiable and the agency did not otherwise err or abuse its discretion,” Vaudt added. 

Vaudt ruled that consumers are directly affected by the bottle bill rules and should be involved in discussions of changes. She agreed with DNR that the grocers had largely left customers out of the discussion before asking for changes. 

“Consumers, whether individually or collectively represented in some manner, were necessary parties to that proceeding. In addition to consumers being necessary parties, a declaratory order by IDNR would have substantially prejudiced consumer interests,” Vaudt wrote. “Consumers have a direct determination of when and where they may return empty beverage containers to redeem their deposit. An IDNR order resulting in the suspension of the current rules for adoption of approved redemption centers necessarily affects this interest.”

DNR Director Kayla Lyon earlier said the agency denied the grocery group’s petitions because consumers needed to be involved in the discussion and because state lawmakers should decide on major changes to the bottle bill.

A group representing recycling interests and others, Cleaner Iowa, applauded the decision. 

“This decision reinforces what Iowans have known all along — the Legislature gave the DNR authority over the bottle bill to help protect consumers,” said Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling in Des Moines, in a statement. “As some grocers have decided they will not obey the law, this ruling helps ensure Iowans can maintain a convenient way to redeem empties and help keep our roads, ditches, and riverbeds clean.”

Cleaner Iowa intervened in the case. 

Another member of Cleaner Iowa, Troy Willard, owner of Can Shed redemption centers in eastern Iowa, said any changes to the bottle bill need to be fair to various parties.

“The existing bottle bill system needs to remain fair to all, and now is time for all stakeholders to discuss how to protect and modernize the bottle bill for the next 40 years,” Willard said in a statement.

The Iowa Legislature is considering bills that could provide more money for redemption centers and funnel unclaimed deposits into a fund to benefit taxpayers. Some proposals would allow grocers to opt out of taking the cans and bottles under certain circumstances.

Grocery association representatives did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.