Guest Columnists

Modernize Iowa's bottle deposit law

Cans are scanned as they move through the recycling process at The Can Shed in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Cans are scanned as they move through the recycling process at The Can Shed in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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There is a reason three times as many water bottles are being landfilled in Iowa as compared to bottle-deposit containers (soda and beer): because curbside recycling does a poor job recovering beverage containers, especially as compared to Iowa’s highly-efficient bottle bill.

Also disturbing is the trend that non-deposit containers (water and sports drinks) are being landfilled — despite increasing curbside availability — at twice the rate in the last 6 years. Without a financial incentive to return these containers, people tend to throw them away, especially a container designed to be consumed “on the go.”

Curbside recycling works well for residents in densely populated areas and for non-container materials (paper, cardboard, etc.). This is one of many reasons the two programs — curbside and the bottle bill — complement each other and provide a more comprehensive approach to recycling than just one of them.

Nationally, curbside programs only recover about a third of the beverage containers that are actually recycled under Iowa’s bottle bill, the rest end up either in landfills or ditches.

Repealing the bottle bill is clearly not an answer if the question is how can we improve recycling in Iowa.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association and Iowa Beverage Association would like nothing more than to wash their hands of any responsibility for the recovery and recycling of containers they profit from.

The $60 million dollars they seek to raise through a “fee” is a drop in the bucket for what it would take to expand and maintain a system statewide that only will recover a third of the containers our bottle bill successfully does.

Once that tax money is gone, the cost will fall on cities and counties; a cost that will ultimately be put on taxpayers. On top of that, the litter tax element of their plan falls woefully short of covering the actual cost it will take to clean up the inevitable problem that will result.

The common theme throughout recent polls is a majority of Iowans like the bottle bill and want to see it modernized.

When looking at ways to help redemption centers survive and appease grocers, the first thing that needs to be addressed is the 40-year-old, 1-cent handling fee.

A much-overdue increase in the handling fee would help entice people to open new redemption centers.

With more redemption centers, more Iowans would gravitate toward them as an alternative to grocery stores as a point of redemption and give grocery stores the opportunity to designate and opt out of redemption altogether.

Also, update the definition of “beverage” to reflect our modern marketplace by including non-carbonated drink containers (often the same container as their carbonated counterparts) so they are recycled and don’t end up in our landfills.

What can make recycling in Iowa more successful, convenient and modern?

We should take our lead from states with similar legislation that have updated their bottle bills to keep pace with inflation and beverage industry trends. This will reinvigorate redemption businesses and make investments into redemption technology possible.

In turn, this will make the customer experience better and easier, relieve grocers from being the focal point of redemption and double recycling of containers nearly overnight.

• Troy Willard is CEO of the Can Shed in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City

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