Bottle bill fight returns in 2022 legislative session

By: - February 6, 2022 12:00 pm

(Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The bottle bill battle is back.

Forty years ago, Iowa lawmakers created a system to encourage people to return cans and bottles for recycling and decrease littering. 

Customers pay an extra 5 cents for every can or bottle they purchase. If they return the empty container to the store, customers get that 5 cents back.

Then, the retailer returns the cans to the distributor. The distributor pays 6 cents back to the store per can – 5 cents to reimburse, plus an additional penny for handling fees.

(Diagram courtesy of Iowa Department of Natural Resources)

Fast-forward to 2022, and nobody’s happy with the current system. For years, lawmakers have been trying to change the law to appease retailers, distributors, redemption centers and customers – and for years, those proposals have faltered along the way.

A panel of Iowa senators took up the issue for the 2022 legislative session last week. 

What’s new this year?

A proposal by Senate Commerce Chair Jason Schultz would make two major changes to current law: increasing the handling fee to 2 cents – a cost split between distributors and retailers – and allowing some retailers to opt out of the program.

“We are trying to negotiate in good faith here,” said David Adelman, a lobbyist for the Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors Association and the primary proponent for the bill. “We believe that this is a reasonable solution … in order to boost those redemption centers and keep the bottle bill moving forward for another 40 years successfully.”

Grocery retailers were opposed. Former lawmaker Chip Baltimore, a lobbyist for Fareway, argued grocery stores shoulder a significant burden of accepting and processing the cans, which are sometimes unclean.

“It simply makes no sense anymore to return consumers’ garbage – because that’s really what it is – back to a place where you’re trying to sell fresh food,” Baltimore said.

He said the opt-out was also insufficient, as it would only apply to stores within 15 miles of an alternate location for can returns, like a redemption center. 

“This bill, from our perspective, is a nonstarter that’s brought forward from last year,” Baltimore said.

Brad Epperly, lobbyist for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, agreed with Baltimore.

“Why would you continue a system that you would never enact today?” he asked. “Simply because it’s in place?”

Representatives from redemption centers, businesses that accept container drop-offs, advocated for a larger handling fee increase.

“If you want more redemption centers, taking the burden off the grocery stores, you gotta raise the handling fee to encourage more redemption centers,” said Todd Willard, owner of the Can Shed.

Sen. Waylon Brown and Sen. Mike Klimesh approved the proposal for consideration by the Senate Commerce Committee. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat, declined to sign off.

Brown, R-Osage, acknowledged the proposal would need amendments.

“I’d like to be able to take all the information that we’ve gathered here in this meeting and see if there is a pathway forward for this,” Brown said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.