Make pennies from Iowa’s can and bottle buyback law

Years of advocacy could result in disappointing reforms to Iowa’s container drop program this legislative session

Bags of empty cans fill a trailer at Can Shed in Marion. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa lawmakers intend to update Iowa’s bottle bill, but that could mean more downsizing than modernization.

The people of Iowa are proud to have one of the oldest container buy-back laws in the nation. There is broad bipartisan support for keeping him in place and he is credited with keeping soft drink and beer cans out of ditches and parks. Yet the program is showing its age, having been adopted in the late 1970s and having undergone no significant changes since then, despite frequent efforts to reform it.

Lawmakers are starting this session again and there seems to be more momentum than in previous years. While some of the proposals are encouraging, the bills do not go far enough to bring the can deposit system into the 21st century.

The Gazette recently hosted a special edition of our Pints ​​& Politics roundtable focusing on the bill of the bottle. We partnered with the League of Women Voters to bring in stakeholders who provided insight into the status of the program and proposed changes.

One measure that seems to have strong 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 centres.

That’s promising, but it doesn’t matter how much of a rate hike they settle on. If lawmakers underestimate this, they could jeopardize the long-term viability of the system.

“I am amazed that we have recycling centers. I would say there’s an urgent need to get that rate up to at least two cents, but I’m hoping for a lot more than that, maybe up to three,” said Dermot Hayes, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, during from the Pints ​​& Politics program.

Our biggest concern is the plan to allow more retailers to refuse to accept cans and bottles for return, based on their proximity to another redemption point. Grocery stores don’t like having the liability, but it’s an important service for their customers, especially in smaller towns that don’t have stand-alone recycling centers.

The whole system hinges on making it relatively easy for Iowans to return their containers and get their nickels back. This change would make things more difficult.

We also don’t particularly like the proposal to capture about $48 million in defaulted deposits for the state government’s taxpayer relief fund. It makes sense to redirect that money, but it would make much more sense to spend it on something related to the intent of the bottle bill, like recycling and road cleaning programs.

Leading lawmakers oppose other ideas put forward by recycling advocates that would improve the buy-back program, such as increasing the deposit to 10 cents and expanding the types of containers included. We think both deserve serious consideration, so it’s disappointing that it’s seemingly a non-runner in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Since the law was passed in 1978, the value of a nickel has fallen nearly 75%, reducing the incentive to return empties. He’s late for a raise.

And the beverage market is very different from what it was four decades ago – bottled water, sports drinks and other non-carbonated beverages have become huge industries, but these containers are not subject to the deposit requirement.

You can observe the effects of container mismatch if you pay attention to the 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 trash.

These discussions always get bogged down in disagreements between opposing lobbyists. It is a difficult political issue marked by competing business interests.

“Any attempt in the past has failed because it takes arrows in so many different directions,” Senator Ken Rozenboom said during The Gazette’s recent roundtable.

Despite our reservations, we would rather see something done than nothing.

If lawmakers commit to cutting grocers further, they should also provide incentives to start and maintain alternative redemption centers. If they can accept an increase in processing fees this year, we hope that in the years to come they will continue to look for ways to improve the system.

This may be the year the bottle bill finally gets some changes, but it won’t be the end of the road for this can.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com