Future of Iowa’s Bottle Bill in Question

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DES MOINES, Iowa – The 2021 Iowa Legislative Session begins Monday.

Every year, there’s typically discussion of the state’s beverage container control program, better known as the “bottle bill” that places a five-cent deposit on cans and bottles.

It hasn’t been updated in over forty years. This year, there’s a pre-filed bill to repeal it.

The pandemic put some of the problems in focus when some grocers stopped accepting cans. The nearly 42-year-old law that is in need of some adjustments may be running out of time.

It’s always busy at K & B Redemption Center in Des Moines, one of the few redemption centers left in the Metro. With employees handling tens of thousands of cans each day, they only work half days in order to keep up with demand.

Per usual, they pay customers 5-cents per container, and in return: “We get one cent. You figure for every $1,000 you get, you make $200.”

Owner Leonard Walters didn’t want to be on camera, but calls the bottle bill broken. He would like to see an increase in the handling fee, as well as more communication from lawmakers.

“For the legislature to actually listen to people, they’re messing with something they have no idea what it even is,” Walters said. “They’re sitting there trying to change a bill and nobody’s even come around to ask what the redemption centers think.”

Troy Willard owns Can Shed redemption centers in Eastern Iowa. He has locations in Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha, Iowa City, Manchester, and Marion.

“As long as people have a convenient way to return their stuff, they’re going to do it,” Willard said. “Right now, there’s no convenient way of doing it. That’s why it’s starting to fail.”

He understands the need to adapt with the times. That’s why in 2017, he invested about a million dollars on fully automated systems with barcode scanning. He said the technology benefits the distributors, as well as his own operation.

“They’re saving money because they’re not putting so much labor and time and space into it at their warehouses,” Willard explained, “and it’s saving me time and labor and space by being able just to run it down the line, and never have to touch it again.”

Willard said there are things lawmakers could do to help the bottle bill survive: increasing deposits, increasing handling fees, and broadening scope of law to include all containers.

Can Shed not only collects and pays out deposits, but also makes sure the material gets recycled and marketed.

That’s similar to what Mid America Recycling does in Des Moines. The state’s largest single stream recycling plant was created to handle the containers for the bottle bill back in 1979. Since then, it’s evolved into a multi-material recycling facility.

“The bottle bill and single stream recycling work hand in hand,” Mid America Recycling President Mick Barry said. “They’re two pieces of a total system and our system in Iowa has put us in the top five recycling states in the union.”

Barry said the bottle bill was originally designed for anti-litter, and repealing it would mean higher costs for citizens who recycle.

“This year the legislature has an opportunity to look at improving the bottle bill, making the changes that are needed to keep the bottle bill working,” Barry said, “because the bottle bill is the cornerstone of our success. Without the bottle bill, Iowa would not be a top ranked recycling state.”

President of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association Michelle Hurd wants the law to be enforced equally across the board.

“Many folks don’t understand or don’t know that a dealer is anyone who sells beverages, sells the cans and bottles,” Hurd explained. “If you sell them, you need to redeem them. There are several dollar stores, hardware stores, and many other types of stores that have never taken back cans and bottles that they sell. So really, you have a law that’s not been uniformly applied or enforced.”

She couldn’t speak on behalf of the specific grocery stores who are still not accepting bottles and cans, but said the grocery industry shouldn’t be the only one shouldering the burden of the bottle bill.

“If the law was properly applied and enforced, we wouldn’t have some of the issues that we have today,” Hurd said.

With many moving parts, several different industries are involved with the bottle bill. All the leaders are now looking to the state for help in improving the law.

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