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Iowa has outgrown its old 'bottle bill' as we struggle to put a new value on trash
by Dan Brawner Times Columnist · March 9th, 2017

Iowa's "bottle bill" was enacted in 1978 to encourage recycling by requiring a five-cent deposit on certain beverage cans and bottles. Soon, aluminum and glass containers that used to litter ditches and roadsides were now recycled. These days, 86 percent of these containers are recycled, with more than 82,352 tons kept from the waste stream every year. The energy savings alone could heat 42,845 average Iowa homes because that original bottle bill turned trash into cash.

Unfortunately, trash is still trash, and grocery and convenience stores required to handle, store and redeem the containers hate the bottle bill. They say it contaminates their stores with insects, mold and other slime from unwashed containers, making it more difficult for them to adhere to strict health and cleanliness standards set down for the food industry.

Now the Iowa legislature is considering a bill (House Study Bill 163) that would end the deposit and place a greater emphasis on recycling by requiring beverage distributors to come up with $60 million over four years to fund the recycling program. Currently, Iowa is one of only 10 states with a bottle bill.

Container redemption is not just a problem for grocery stores; it's a pain for consumers. Not only do we have to pay an extra five cents up front for every can of soda or beer, we have to take the containers to a recycling center or neatly pack them up and slog through the process of redeeming them at a store.

Years ago, I used to throw all my cans and bottles into a trash bag and take it to Willson's Grocery in Lisbon, which stocked an astonishing selection of food items, gifts, magazines and obscure plumbing parts. Earl Willson would ask me how many containers were in the bag, I told him, and he paid me the deposit - no questions asked. I never found anybody else who would do that, and since then, I have lacked the patience to redeem containers any other way. So now I forfeit the five cents and take my cans and bottles directly to get recycled. Which brings up the question: if 86 percent of containers with deposits are redeemed, what happens to the unclaimed 14 percent? It turns out the distributors keep it. And they need it.

Back in 1978, when Iowa's bottle bill was written, the redemption program worked because consumers plunked down their five cents per container and wanted the money back from the empties. It was worth it for stores because the state gave them six cents per container, of which they kept a penny. Now, 39 years' worth of inflation later, that penny is not paying the bills as it used to.

The Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club recommends raising the deposit from five to 10 cents. (Michigan did that and now their container redemption stands at an amazing 97 percent.) The fee paid to stores would be raised from one to two cents per container. This might be the way to go, but it still does not solve the problem for grocers of bugs and crud in cans or the hassle of schlepping containers to the store. It's times like these that I remember how much I miss Willson's Grocery.

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