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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa lawmakers have plans to update Iowa’s bottle bill but it might end up as more of a downsizing than a modernizing.
Iowans take pride in having one of the oldest container redemption laws in the nation. There is widespread bipartisan support to keep it in place and it is credited with keeping pop and beer cans out of ditches and parks. Yet the program is showing its age, having been adopted in the late 1970s and receiving no significant changes since then despite frequent efforts to reform it.
Legislators at it again this session and there seems to be more momentum than in previous years. While some of the proposals are encouraging, the bills don’t go far enough to bring the can deposit system into the 21st century.
The Gazette recently hosted a special edition of our Pints & Politics panel discussion focused on the bottle bill. We partnered with the League of Women Voters to bring in stakeholders who gave insights about the state of the program and proposed changes.
One measure that appears to have significant support is to change the fee structure by increasing the rate paid to redemption centers, which we fully support. The current rate of 1 cent per container is a barrier to profitability, especially for smaller centers.
That is promising but it matters how much of a rate hike they settle on. If lawmakers lowball it, they might undermine the system’s long-term sustainability.
“I’m amazed that we have any recycling centers at all. I would say an urgent need is to get that rate up to at least two cents but hopefully a lot more than that, maybe as high as three,” Iowa State University agriculture economist Dermot Hayes said during the Pints & Politics program.
Our biggest concern is with the plan to allow more retailers to opt out of accepting cans and bottles for return, depending on their proximity to another redemption point. Grocery stores don’t like having the responsibility but it is an important service for their customers, especially in small towns that don’t have stand-alone recycling centers.
The whole system relies on it being relatively easy for Iowans to turn in their containers and get their nickels back. This change would make it harder.
We also are not especially fond of the proposal to capture an estimated $48 million in unredeemed deposits for the state government’s taxpayer relief fund. It is reasonable to redirect that money but it would make a lot more sense to put it toward a purpose relevant to the intent of the bottle bill, like recycling and roadway cleanup programs.
Key lawmakers are opposed to other ideas brought by recycling advocates that would enhance the redemption program — such as increasing the deposit to 10 cents and expanding the types of containers included. We think both are worthy of serious consideration so it’s disappointing that this apparently is a non-starter in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Since the law was passed in 1978, the value of a nickel has dropped by nearly 75 percent, diminishing the incentive to return empties. It is overdue for an increase.
And the beverage market is a lot different from it was four decades ago — bottled water, sports drinks and other non-carbonated beverages have become huge industries but those containers are not subject to the deposit requirement.
You can observe the effects of the container disparity if you pay attention to litter. Gatorade and juice bottles seem to be much more prevalent than beer and soda cans. It’s not hard to see why — one is worth money and the other is garbage.
These discussions always get mired in disagreements between opposing lobbyists. It’s a tough political issue marked by competing business interests.
“Any attempt in the past has failed since it takes arrows from so many different directions,” state Sen. Ken Rozenboom said during The Gazette’s recent panel discussion.
Despite our reservations, we would rather see something done than nothing.
If lawmakers are committed to a bigger cutout for grocers, they should also provide incentives to start and sustain alternative redemption centers. If they can settle on an increase for the handling fee this year, we hope in future years they’ll continue looking at ways to improve the system.
Maybe this is the year the bottle bill finally gets some changes, but it won’t be the end of the road for this kicked can.
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