CORONAVIRUS

COVID-19 calls fate of Iowa's bottle bill into question

Grocery stores have long wanted out of container recycling

Troy Willard, chief executive officer of the Can Shed, gives a tour Jan. 5, 2018, next to a large pile of recycled bottl
Troy Willard, chief executive officer of the Can Shed, gives a tour Jan. 5, 2018, next to a large pile of recycled bottles at the Cedar Rapids facility. (The Gazette)
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The novel coronavirus has accomplished what Iowa lawmakers and lobbyists have been unable to do for decades: lift the requirement for grocery stores and other retailers to take back empty beverage containers.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find no evidence that returning beverage containers through programs like Iowa’s bottle bill poses any threat to public health, Gov. Kim Reynolds temporarily suspended the requirement retailers take back cans and bottles because that would “prevent or hinder efforts to cope with this disaster in all counties of our state.”

So far, there’s been little pushback either from businesses impacted by her order or supporters of the bottle bill that has been a part of Iowa life since 1979.

It was a simple concept: Consumers pay a 5-cent deposit when purchasing a carbonated or alcohol beverage container and receive a 5-cent refund when returning the empty to a store or redemption center. That deposit is meant to encourage recycling over littering.

Not so simple have been annual attempts in the Iowa Legislature to change the bottle bill.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association lobbied Reynolds for the temporary suspension and the group’s president, Michelle Hurd, would welcome a permanent end to container redemption at grocery stores.

The cost in resources and staffing are concerns, but sanitation has always been the overriding issue for grocers, said Brad Epperly, who lobbies for the grocers.

“And then you face something like we have now and it encapsulates why we should rethink this,” Epperly said. Grocery stores are “where we go to buy our food.”

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Many of those involved in discussions of bottle bill changes doubt the governor’s order can or will become permanent. But some speculate the temporary suspension may provide a jolt of urgency to debate.

“The tragedy of the situation is that I completely agree we want to get containers out of grocery stores,” said Rep. Andy McKean, D-Anamosa, a longtime advocate for the bottle bill. “I think we all want that. If we had been willing to increase the handling fee a few years ago we would have redemption centers up and running.”

There were more than 500 redemptions centers in the early days of the bottle bill, but now there are fewer than 100. Fewer than 50, some say.

And they’re never coming back whether the 1-cent handling fee is increased or not, Epperly argued.

“They’re gone” and even doubling the handling fee won’t make a difference, he said.

There might not ever be 500 redemption centers again, but Troy Willard, whose Can Shed redemption center serves businesses and consumers in a 45-mile radius around Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, said that doubling the penny handling fee would help the centers deal with increases in overhead over the past 40 years.

Just days before celebrating the Can Shed’s 23rd anniversary, Willard closed his doors and idled about 25 employees “until business restrictions are lifted.”

“We’ll be ready when business does resume,” said Willard, who has been a fixture at legislative hearings on bottle bill changes. In the meantime, “it’s keeping me up at night.”

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If any good comes of the suspension, Willard said, is that it might force the discussion about the future of the bottle bill and redemptions centers.

“It could be the compelling event that may get some movement in this stalemate,” he said.

Rep. Jacob Bossman, R-Sioux City, hopes Willard is right. Bossman is floor manager of House File 2534 that would expand the variety of containers included in the bottle bill and, over time, move it out of grocery stores. It also would double the handling fee for redemption centers.

Coronavirus is “another example of why we need to get this out of stores,” he said. “It’s part of the reason I’m so passionate about getting this potentially dangerous material out of stores.”

HF 2534 has been approved by the State Government Committee and referred to Ways and Means.

The grocery association, which is a major player in bottle bill discussions, hasn’t taken a position on HF 2534. It might be an improvement, but doesn’t go far enough, Epperly said.

This is his fourth legislative session dealing directly with the issue “and I don’t accept any of the arguments from any of the other sides.”

“If you ask us, we’ll say the best policy is to repeal the bottle bill and enact comprehensive recycling statewide,” he said. Proponents of that approach estimate about 80 percent of Iowans have access to curbside recycling. However, it’s not available in much of rural Iowa.

Epperly isn’t sure lawmakers will resume their discussion of HF 2534 this year. Due to COVID-19, the session has been suspended until at least April 30. It’s anyone’s guess what legislators will do when they resume their session other than approve the fiscal 2021 budget and any “must-do” bills.

“It’s possible policy discussions get pushed aside,” Epperly said.

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That would be unfortunate, he said, but that’s been the outcome of bottle bill debates in the past. Inertia, a lack of consensus and “a certain amount of love for the bottle bill” have resulted in no changes.

“The bottle bill is not a government program, but government-created, so people have a vested interest,” Epperly said. “It’s very tough to change.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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