116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Now that the 2021 legislative session concluded without any changes to Iowa's 1979 container deposit law, legislators, news outlets and other organizations are receiving occasional complaints from Iowans who say they have been told by a retailer that sold them an alcoholic or carbonated beverage covered by the statute that the store was no longer accepting the empties for redemption.
According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, "the basic way the deposit/refund system works is for people to take their empty containers back to the stores where those products are sold. The only way a store can lawfully be exempt from redeeming cans and bottles is if it has an Iowa DNR 'approved' redemption center. The store must have posted a certificate issued by the Iowa DNR that identifies the 'approved' redemption center, its location and the hours it is open.“
Amie Davidson, bureau chief for the Iowa DNR's land quality bureau, said the bottle bill requires that the redemption center "provides a convenient service to consumers for the return of empty beverage containers." The department has determined that a 10-minute trip is reasonable, but also allows applicants seeking to establish a redemption center that is farther away to do so if they can make a case for it.
Violation of the law is a simple misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in jail and/or a fine ranging from $105 to $855.
Here the responses from Jessica Reynolds, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller about the enforcement of Iowa's beverage container control law
So what is the recourse for citizens if they feel a business is not complying with the deposit redemption law?
Reynolds: "The way a county attorney would receive that information would be from a law enforcement complaint," said Jessica Reynolds, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association. "So if someone goes to return bottles and the business won’t take the bottles, that person then calls law enforcement. I don’t know how many law enforcement entities are familiar with that law so they could call their county attorney or, if they are familiar, they could issue a citation or consult with their county attorney about the law and the penalties for the law.
"Each county attorney has discretion; each law enforcement agency has discretion. So people who are seeking to return bottles and are unable to do that would want to report that to the law enforcement agency — that’s the complaint process. …“
Is this a topic of conversation among county attorneys?
Reynolds: "We’re all aware of the bill and of the criminal penalties that are contained in the current legislation. I’ll tell you that with COVID-19, county attorneys are feverishly trying felony cases right now. We are backed up on our dockets. So our legislative priorities this year focused on child sexual abuse crimes and I know our county attorneys are just swamped right now with criminal cases so, no, this isn’t something that we’ve put an emphasis on. We’re certainly happy to enforce the law when it’s brought to us, but as far as is this high on our priority list right now, it definitely takes a back seat to violent crimes for sure."
Are you aware of how often an enforcement action is brought against a business?
Reynolds: "No, I’ve never had to do that. I used to be the Story County attorney and I received — actually someone called in and let me know, someone who tried to return just cold called me and said, 'hey, I went to this facility and they’re not taking them.' I sent them a letter advising them of the law and that they have to do this. I told the caller give them two days, go back and then call me back. They went back two days later and the place did take the containers. This was before COVID but some businesses aren’t aware of this law."
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the fact that the Legislature took no action and the law is "back to the status quo before COVID about accepting bottles" does "raise some enforcement questions" in cases where businesses are not complying with provisions of the law.
"This whole thing has been a bit of a quagmire for a lot of people involved. But the basic principle of the rule of law is that everybody has to follow the law and these folks should. They’re frustrated in a lot of ways and I can understand that to some extent. They’ve gone to the Legislature and I think came closer this time than in recent years to get something passed. But I’ve always believed that — particularly as attorney general — people should follow the law."
If a local law enforcement agency or county attorney filed a complaint, who would it be against — a store manager or company?
Miller: "I think it would be against the company, which of course would have the least deterrence perhaps. But I believe it would be the company. The primary responsibility is with the county attorneys and the local officials. But this is just not a good enforcement mechanism for them, to bring misdemeanor charges. I recognize that and do want to work with them certainly informally. That’s why we needed to change the law. It made much more sense to have some sort of civil fine or civil penalty for this and that’s part of the quagmire."
House File 892, which passed out of the House Appropriations Committee and currently is on the House floor debate calendar for next session, included a provision to create a civil penalty of up to $2,500 for each day a violation occurred and deposit any revenue into a newly created bottle bill fund; the measure would allow Iowa DNR officials to issue a compliance order subject to appeal to the state Environmental Protection Commission and to district court. Miller said his office favored establishing some intermediate civil penalty so the first step in the compliance process wasn't initiating a criminal procedure.
Miller: "The Legislature is over and the attempt was made and it came close. The people in the retail business will consider this and follow the law as everybody should. If they don’t, then it’s up to the county attorneys, and if the county attorneys want our thoughts or if we can be helpful in some way, then we will be. The remedy is difficult; that’s one of the reasons that the statute should have been changed. We’re all in this together. We all should follow the rule of law. We’re all dependent on laws being followed and society being protected and society being ordered."
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