GOP lawmakers say bottle bill repeal may be the next step

By: - April 4, 2022 6:39 pm

Two key GOP lawmakers said April 4, 2022, they would consider repealing the bottle bill program if they can’t find a compromise this session. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

If lawmakers cannot reach a compromise on Iowa’s bottle and can redemption program, they may scrap the law altogether, leaders on Iowa’s bottle bill proposal said Monday.

Both the House and Senate have advanced similar plans to change the bottle bill. House Speaker Pat Grassley has said negotiations are ongoing to find a compromise between the two chambers, noting lawmakers have “made as much progress in the Legislature this year than we had in my time that I can remember.”

But if Republicans cannot find that agreement, Rep. Brian Lohse and Sen. Jason Schultz told Iowa Public Radio Monday they are ready to consider a full repeal of Iowa’s bottle redemption law.

“It’s to the point where I think a whole lot of people agree: If we can’t get something done this year, next year we need to be looking at repeal,” Schultz, R-Schleswig, said.

Lohse, R-Bondurant, said he has wanted to repeal the bottle bill for four years.

“I think at some point, we have to do something,” Lohse said. “I would like to try to fix it, but if we can’t fix it, this thing is going to implode on itself. It’s just time to repeal it.”

Lohse said lawmakers are meeting on the bottle bill this week.

“I am hopeful that we can get something done – something that will be meaningful to Iowans and will continue the shelf life for the bottle bill,” he said.

Grocers would rather repeal law than keep taking empties

Representatives for grocery stores said their primary goal was allowing retailers to opt out of the redemption program – regardless of whether that comes through a legislative change or a total repeal.

“The grocery industry has always supported repeal,” Brad Epperly, lobbyist for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, wrote in an email. “However, the priority is to get the used containers out of stores where fresh produce and food is prepared. Both the House and Senate bills accomplish that goal, but there are details and differences between the bills that need to be worked through.”

House File 2571 and Senate File 2378 both allow grocery stores to refuse bottle and can returns, regardless of where the nearest redemption center is located.

Chip Baltimore, Fareway lobbyist and a former lawmaker, said the Senate bill is preferable to the House proposal, as it does not require retailers to help pay an additional half-cent handling fee.

“If a repeal of the system that allows or requires garbage to be brought into stores is offered, I think we would have to seriously take a look at that as it would address our biggest concern with the current system,” Baltimore wrote in an email.

Redemption centers, distributors reject repeal prospects

Troy Willard, owner of the Can Shed redemption centers, said the Iowa Public Radio interview “just about gave (him) a heart attack.”

“I just know in my bones that it’s a shortsighted solution,” Willard said of a potential repeal of the bottle and can redemption law.

Representatives for redemption and recycling centers critiqued the House and Senate proposals, but said passing changes to the law would be preferable to repealing it entirely. 

“It is disheartening that legislators would threaten to do away with something that most Iowans support simply because they can’t agree on how to improve it,” said Elizabeth Mackenzie, president of the Iowa Recycling Association. “The bottle bill is several decades old and does need modification so that it can continue to serve its purpose of keeping Iowa clean, but repealing it is not the answer.”

Willard said raising the handling fee – a provision in both bills – would improve the system, though he was concerned the bill would cause a “logjam” at redemption centers as fewer grocery stores accept cans.

Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling, agreed. He said the proposed bills would improve the system, aside from new exemptions allowing grocery stores to opt out of the program. He advocated for requiring grocery stores to accept returns, but increasing the handling fees for both redemption centers and grocery stores.

“They’ve really done a great job to this point,” Barry said of House and Senate proposals so far this year.

David Adelman, lobbyist for the Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors Association, said he was “hopeful” lawmakers would reach a compromise before the session ends.

“Iowa’s beer distributors are focused on finding a bipartisan, common-sense solution this year,” Adelman wrote in an email. “The Senate and the House are as close as they have ever been in finding a way to reform the bottle bill.”

Adelman, Barry, Willard and Mackenzie all pointed to the popularity of the program, citing a Selzer & Co poll that found 84% of Iowans supported the bottle redemption program. Lohse said the poll shows theoretical support, but does not necessarily mean enough Iowans are redeeming bottles to make it sustainable.

“They may want to keep it, but 84% of Iowans don’t seem to be using it,” Lohse said. “The idea is good. The thought is there. But I’m not sure the practice is.”

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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.