Want to drive 30 miles round trip to redeem your cans and bottles? No thanks.
Any changes to how the bottle law works in the real world must be made with transparency and public input, not behind the scenes between grocers and a state agency.
The “bottle bill” seems pretty straightforward to anyone who has lived in Iowa for a while. When you purchase carbonated and alcoholic beverages at a grocery store, you pay a 5-cent deposit. When you return the cans and bottles, you get your nickel back. You feel good because you know the container is recycled.
But a recent petition from the Iowa Grocery Industry Association to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is a reminder that some aspects of the law — and how the law is applied — may need clarification.
A store must redeem empty containers of products it sells, but can be lawfully exempt from doing so on the premises if there is a redemption center “approved” by the DNR in the area and the store identifies it for consumers. To be “approved,” a center must be no more than 10 minutes in travel time from the store.
The grocers’ association wanted the agency to allow centers to be located up to 15 miles away from the store. The DNR rightly denied the petition.
An Iowan buying a 12-pack of Pepsi at a nearby store should not need to travel up to 30 miles round trip to get the 60-cent deposit back. That’s ridiculous.
And it could be worse than that, said Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling.
“Some Iowans may drive 25 miles to the grocery store, but the redemption center is even farther away from their house,” he told a Register editorial writer. “The 15-mile radius would be a death knell for the bottle bill because it would make it so inconvenient to return cans and bottles.”
The grocers argue in the petition that the current 10-minute “convenience standard” for distance to a redemption center is not set in law.
OK. Lawmakers can certainly set a clear convenience standard for redemption centers. They also can increase penalties for stores that don’t follow the law. And they can expand the bottle bill to include other drink containers, particularly plastic water bottles that end up in our gutters and oceans.
They should modernize a law that’s more than 40 years old. Unlike a petition to a state agency, the legislative process would be more transparent and allow for public input.
Iowans have strong feelings about the bottle law. Polling in 2017 by J. Ann Selzer, president and owner of Selzer & Co., showed the vast majority of surveyed Iowans, both Democrats and Republicans, favored retaining the current law or expanding it.
Iowans know the bottle bill has made this state a leader in recycling, and the law is a proud part of our history.
It was passed in 1978, when millions of beverage containers were being tossed in roadside ditches and waterways. One year after it was enacted, a survey conducted by the state found a 77% decrease in beverage container litter. Nearly 40 years later, 64% of all deposit beverage containers were redeemed, with glass being redeemed at a rate of 76%.
Grocers have legitimate gripes. Cans and bottles are sticky. Staff have to deal with them. There is little to no money in all this for stores, which end up redeeming containers purchased at hardware and convenience stores.
Of course, customers are the ones who stack empty containers in garages, cart them to the store, sort them into bins or feed them one at a time into machines frequently located in confined, smelly places. Now add a contagious virus to the mix.
The DNR recognizes the bottle law “can be a hassle for all parties involved,” but it has long been a part of doing business in Iowa and diverts thousands of tons of recyclable materials from being littered or landfilled, according to an agency publication.
In other words, sometimes doing right by the environment requires a little work.