Guest Columnist

Iowa bottle bill can be improved

Cans sit in a bin at a redemption center, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Cans sit in a bin at a redemption center, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

It encouraging to see the “bottle bill” come to the attention of the Iowa Legislature. However, none of the bills I have seen to date address a central difficulty the widely supported bill currently faces, a difficulty which also clearly points to a remedy for it.

COVID has been causing pauses in many Iowa households and businesses, and the bottle was not spared. With so little known about the virus at first, vendors decided handling containers was dangerous for their employees and stopped the redemption process. The system ground to a near halt. The governor’s office offered the vendors a break from compliance, then lifted that, but many, some large, some small, are still not accepting any or all containers.

Stress fractures in the 40-year-old bill became starkly visible: neglected and out-of-date sorting machines in some of the major outlets, continuing absence of redemption centers in rural, lower population areas, and the ever-decreasing value of cash in the system (5-cent deposit fees, 1-cent handling fees) to make it financially viable for businesses involved. Neither the deposit fee nor the handling fee have ever been raised. What cost 5 cents in 1979 when the original bill went into effect now, according to inflation guides, would currently cost 300-plus percent more.

The container redemption law does not cost the taxpayers anything; it is funded by the manufacturers, a self-sustaining system in which money circulates to ultimately repay customers first and vendors next as the bottles return to the manufacturers. The vendors ultimately receive an extra cent in handling costs, the manufacturers save themselves the expense of buying all new containers every year. When containers are not redeemed, everyone in the chain loses something.

Proportionately raising the redemption and handling fees would deliver an added boost to all the participants in the system. Vendors would have more money to use to assign employees to redemption center areas and to upgrade equipment. Distributors would have more funds to offset the cost of adding more new containers. And customers would have an added incentive to return their containers, as would nonprofits and individuals who collect containers to benefit their financial needs. If more needs to be done to the bill to make it palatable to the legislators who are hearing from unhappy vendors, adding to the distributor’s requirements a holding account at a local bank and semiannual reports might not impose obstacles the distributors could not comply with. They would need to be asked. Iowans have always liked the bill, supported it, want it to be renewed.

Voluntary participation in local recycling systems is not a replacement for this in any way. Local communities, if they are large enough to offer their residents recycling options, cannot offer them any financial incentives to do so. Instead, they will need to either raise water / waste bill fees or raise taxes to offset the cost of hiring companies to redeem bottles and redirect cans and plastics to firms that know how to recycle them. Or, if they cannot afford to collect recyclables, they will once again go to the landfills (or worse). This is not a self-supporting system, it is not an incentivizing system, nor is it a system designed to help our grandchildren live in a clean environment.

Syndy Conger lives in Iowa City.

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