CORONAVIRUS

Bottles and cans piling up in the pandemic?

To grocers' lament, refunds expected to return

Glass is held awaiting pickup March 5 at Solid Waste Agency Site 1 in Cedar Rapids. Glass recycled curbside in Cedar Rap
Glass is held awaiting pickup March 5 at Solid Waste Agency Site 1 in Cedar Rapids. Glass recycled curbside in Cedar Rapids goes to a bottle maker from Kansas City, Mo. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — A battle waged this year over the future of Iowa’s more than 40-year-old “bottle bill” ended last month in surrender.

But all Jim Cahill wants to know is when he can take his cans and bottles to redeem at the grocery store again.

Cahill, of Ankeny, has about 200 in the garage. He says they’ve been piling up since Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a public health emergency March 17 that absolved grocery stores from having to take back the empties.

The availability of can and bottle redemption centers at grocery stores has been hit and miss all over the state since that sweeping proclamation.

Ron Williams of Marion said he had been throwing the empties in a shed, and gave four bags of 100 containers to people who were going to a redemption center just to get rid of the cans.

He said retailers collect the nickel deposit on each container, so “I should be able to get it back from them.”

Regional redemption centers have been open, but grocery stores have made decisions about their own centers on a location-by-location basis.

That’s expected to change July 25, the final date of Reynolds’ extended proclamation.

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“Things should return to normal,” said Amie Davidson, a bureau chief at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Since so many consumers were paying 5-cent deposits on cans and bottles without the usual options for getting that money back, readers have written the Register asking what has happened to that deposit money paid during the shutdown.

Davidson said the way the money is distributed under the 1979 law can appear complicated. But here’s how it works:

Distributors charge retailers 5 cents for every can and bottle they deliver.

Iowans who buy beer, soft drinks, wine or liquor pay a 5-cent deposit to the retailer on each container.

They get their 5 cents back when they return empties to a regional or retail-based redemption center.

Distributors pick up the recycled containers and pay the retailers 5 cents, plus a penny handling fee, for each one.

For retailers, the exchange during the pandemic largely has been a wash, Davidson said. But distributors who haven’t had to pay retailers as much for cans and bottles because they aren’t being redeemed for deposits may have made out well.

No one keeps a public accounting of those numbers, she said. But “distributors would be the ones holding the money.”

Of course, you can just throw cans and bottles in your recycling bin.

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But Iowa’s Beverage Containers Control Law, which covers all carbonated and alcoholic beverages, has helped reduce litter and encouraged more recycling. The bill has assured that about 71 to 77 percent of beverage containers are redeemed annually in Iowa, according to research.

The only way a retailer can be lawfully exempted from redeeming cans and bottles is if it has an off-site Iowa DNR-approved redemption center. The store must post a certificate issued by the Iowa DNR that identifies the redemption center, its location and the hours it is open.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association, which has never liked the system, pushed hard again this year to get redemption centers out of grocery stores, appealing to lawmakers for changes and filing a petition with the Iowa DNR to overhaul rules governing how the bottle bill works.

The association and FuelIowa, which represents gas stations and convenience stores, argued that returns were dirty and unsafe for workers and the public during the pandemic, and said maintaining redemption centers was costly at a time when many retailers were struggling.

Among other things, grocers and other retailers wanted to be able to refuse returns if there was a regional redemption center within a short drive, and they wanted the Iowa DNR or the Attorney General’s Office to hold more small stores like hardware and discount outlet accountable for not taking returns.

The retailers even offered to pay a half-cent for each container for three years — an estimated $9 million — if lawmakers would agree to set up a wider system of redemption centers across the state.

But others who rely on money from bottle and can deposits from redemption centers to low-income Iowans and charities pushed back.

And in this year’s abbreviated legislative session, Iowa’s economic struggle in the pandemic took center stage over any bottle-bill overhaul.

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House File 2205, a bill sponsored by a small-town grocer, Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, would have phased out the bottle deposit over three years. It died in a subcommittee under opposition from recycling and environmental groups.

In the last week of June, the grocery association withdrew its petition seeking changes.

The Iowa DNR is offering up no changes.

“The bottle bill is set in law, so we can’t contradict the law. The main power would fall with the Legislature for change,” Davidson said.

In a speech retiring from the Iowa Legislature. Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, said she hoped future lawmakers would revise and save the bottle bill.

“The bottle bill is something that is loved by Iowans. And they would love to see expansion into all the different types of containers that we now have,” she said.

“Grocers are not big fans of it because they feel it’s a mandate that they didn’t ask for and they don’t necessarily have this space to take all of these containers. So I think that we need to work out a partnership. Certainly in rural areas, there are redemption centers. The difficulty is how far it is to drive to one and for rural folks who have to hang on to all of their containers until they make that next visit to the redemption center has also been a problem,” she added. “I don’t want to get rid of the bottle bill. But I think we need to figure out a partnership with the redemption centers the convenience stores, the grocery stores, to see how we can make it work. So it’s something we need to rehab so that it’s a benefit to all of us.

In the coming weeks, grocery chains like Hy-Vee say they are shaping plans for safely reopening recycling centers inside stores.

But with regional redemption centers dying around the state and retailers complaining that too many in-store redemption facilities are being required, Iowans are likely to see more changes proposed in the years ahead.

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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