Iowa grocers want to quit redeeming empty cans and bottles
Iowa grocers want to quit handling returns of cans and bottles, but the 1978 law establishing beverage container redemptions has been popular with the public and effective in encouraging recyling.
If Iowa's grocery stores and the non-alcoholic beverage industry have their way, the state's 5-cent bottle deposit law will be scrapped by the Iowa Legislature and replaced with an expanded statewide recycling program.
John Otterback, president of the Iowa Beverage Association and chief customer officer for Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co., said Tuesday it's time to modernize and reform the nearly four-decade-old bottle bill.
"Iowans recognize that while the can and bottle redemption law has worked well in the past, we need a different approach to take us to higher levels of recycling and more effective litter prevention," Otterback said.
The industry-sponsored proposal raises worries among supporters of the existing law. They are concerned that if it is junked, many Iowans will simply toss beer and soda containers out of their car windows, creating unsightly roadside litter problems in urban neighborhoods and rural communities.
Wally Taylor of Cedar Rapids, a lawyer for the Iowa chapter the Sierra Club, said he isn't surprised business lobbyists are making another attempt to significantly weaken the beverage container law.
"They've been trying that for 20 years," Taylor said. "We have very strongly supported the bottle bill. In fact, during the last legislative session when there was some talk about the bottle bill being modified or eliminated, we sent an action alert to our members and got almost 1,000 emails to legislators and to the governor from Sierra Club members. That is the biggest response we have ever had on an action alert."
The Iowa Grocery Industry Association, joined by the Iowa Beverage Association, announced Tuesday they'll be making another try before the Iowa Legislature in the 2018 session to rewrite the beverage container law. They favor an approach that would eliminate the nickel deposit Iowans now pay on carbonated cans and bottles.
Their proposal would free grocery stores of the need to redeem bottles and cans while developing an incentive for the expansion of access and use of curbside recycling. It would create a fund paid for by the beverage industry to assist with expanded recycling and establish an incentive for landfills and other recycling operations to expand efforts to include cans and bottles.
Michelle Hurd, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, whose membership includes Hy-Vee Inc., the state's largest grocery chain, said Iowa's existing bottle bill should be revised with a "modern sustainability law" to encourage Iowans to recycle more.
"We will continue to have conversations with legislators and stakeholders moving forward," Hurd said.
The Iowa Grocery Industry Association and the Iowa Beverage Association commissioned a statewide survey by the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm, which found that 55 percent of Iowans favored their legislative proposal. Their November survey of 500 likely Iowa voters, which has a margin of error of 4.5 percent, appears contrary to other polls through the years that have shown widespread public support for the bottle bill.
A statewide poll conducted in February by J. Ann Selzer, president and owner of Selzer & Co., showed that 77 percent of 700 Iowans surveyed favored either retaining the current beverage container law or expanding it. The poll found broad support from Republicans (74 percent), Democrats (81 percent) and independents (81 percent). Nearly nine in 10 Iowa voters (88 percent) said the bottle bill has been good for the state.
Nathan Cooper, executive director of the Iowa Wholesale Beer Distributors Association, which supports the existing bottle bill, expressed doubts about the findings of the Tarrance Group's polling.
"I would be skeptical of a poll pushed out by the Grocery Association and the Bottler Association, who obviously don't like the bottle bill and what it does for cleaning up ditches and promoting recycling," Cooper said. "We think Iowans have bought into the system and the bottle bill is working really well."
Iowa currently recovers 86 percent of its beverage containers, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The law covers all carbonated and alcoholic beverages, and about 1.65 billion containers are redeemed annually in Iowa. The combination of the beverage container law and existing curbside recycling makes Iowa one of the top recycling states in the nation.
If the Legislature repeals the deposit law, the percentage of beverage containers recycled would be expected to drop to the national average of 29 percent, opponents say.
Legislation aimed at dumping the existing bottle law has been supported in the past by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the Iowa Grocery Industry Association, Kum & Go, Casey's General Stores, Kwik Trip Inc., Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores of Iowa, Iowa Beverage Association, Iowa Association of Business and Industry and Iowa Retail Federation. Many retailers complain the cans and bottles are smelly and unsanitary and the redemption process is a headache to administer.
During the past legislative session, the Iowa House Environmental Protection Committee narrowly approved House Study Bill 163, which would repeal the 5-cent bottle deposit program and replace it with a broader recycling and litter reduction program.
The Republican-sponsored measure was subsequently assigned to the Iowa House Ways and Means Committee, where it remains alive for consideration in the legislative session that convenes in January. However, some GOP lawmakers who voted for the deposit repeal bill last session have since voiced doubts about the legislation.
Opponents of last session's legislation included the Sierra Club of Iowa, Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Iowa State Association of County Supervisors, Izaak Walton League - Iowa Division; Iowa State Association of Counties, Raccoon River Watershed Association, and a host of others.
State Rep. Chuck Isenhart of Dubuque, the ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Protection Committee, said Tuesday that changing Iowa's beverage container deposit program is not on the agenda of minority Democrats in the House as the 2018 session approaches.
"We are and always have been willing to work on comprehensive state materials management policies related to reducing, reusing, recycling and rethinking our consumption of natural resources," Isenhart said. "If making common sense adjustments to how we deal with beverage containers is part of that discussion, let's have it. To date, we have not identified many partners willing to have that discussion.