Iowa's 40-year-old bottle bill 'falling apart,' economist says

Proposed bills would increase deposit, double handling fees

Glass bottles move through the system at The Can Shed in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazett
Glass bottles move through the system at The Can Shed in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — Iowa’s 40-year-old bottle bill is “falling apart,” a state economist said Thursday, but can be restored to its original standing by increasing the handling fee paid to recyclers and expanding it to include water, milk and juice containers.

The failure of the bottle bill, Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes said, is that it wasn’t indexed for inflation. If it was, the nickel deposit on alcoholic and soft drink beverage containers would be 17 cents and the 1-cent handling fee would be 3 cents.

“It was a beautiful set of incentives when it was designed,” Hayes said. “There was no bureaucracy. Nobody was forced to do anything. It ran itself and created employment and took material out of the landfill.

“It’s not going to work much longer,” Hayes warned.

Hayes made his comments ahead of a presentation to House and Senate committees considering updates to the bottle bill.

In the House, Rep. Andy McKean, R-Anamosa, has proposed House File 181 that would expand the 5-cent container deposit to non-carbonated and non-alcoholic beverages, such as bottled water and sports drinks. It also would increase the handling fee paid to redemption centers from 1 cent per container to 2 cents.

Sen. Mark Segabart, R-Vail, has sponsored Senate File 59, which also would double the handling fee. It also doesn’t mandate that retailers redeem cans and bottles. Instead, they would be redeemed at state-approved redemption centers.

Hayes told lawmakers that because the deposit and handling fee had not kept up with inflation, the redemption process has become distorted.

“The container recycling rate has fallen to about 71 percent, and the 1-cent handling fee doesn’t cover the actual costs for redemption centers,” he said. “The failure of the system has generated windfall profits for the beverage distributors, who keep the deposit on unredeemed containers.”

The recycling rate for non-carbonated water bottles is 26 percent, according to Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute, who also talked to the legislators.

“The vast majority of non-carbonated beverage containers sold in Iowa are wasted” because they are not recycled, Collins said. By her estimate, more than 10,000 tons of PET plastics are thrown into the state’s landfills every year. PET — polyethylene terephthalate — plastic is the most abundantly used plastic, commonly used for bottled drinks and food containers. PET containers are stamped with the number one surrounded by chasing arrows.

“For decades, evidence has shown that bottle bills are the single most effective form of litter control worldwide,” Collins said, encouraging lawmakers to adopt the proposed changes to extend the life of the bill.

“Iowa just needs to embrace the idea that the entire system has to be updated and take it in stages so it all happens in orderly fashion,” Collins said.

Hayes and Collins were skeptical that single-stream recycling — where recyclable materials don’t have to be sorted for curbside pickup — would be as effective as an expanded bottle bill, as some opponents of the bill have recommended.

“That’s not even close to something that works,” Collins said. Plastic, aluminum and glass container recycling suffers in single-stream, she said, adding that the recycling rate is about one-third as much as the bottle bill approach.

In addition, “they become so cross-contaminated with each other that you can barely recover the value from those materials,” she said. A container deposit law yields cleaner containers, she said.

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

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