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Legislators want to give redemption centers more of the Iowa bottle deposit

DES MOINES — Long-timers at the Capitol joke that a legislative session is not official unless there is a bottle bill debate, and this year will be no exception.

Democrats Sen. Jack Kibbie of Emmetsburg and Rep. John Wittneben of Estherville — the Iowa Senate president and a freshman House member, respectively — don’t actually have high hopes for passage of their proposal. It would allow redemptions centers to keep more of the money and pay consumers only 4 cents of Iowa’s nickel deposit.

“In 1978, a penny-a-can may have been good,” Wittneben said, “but they haven’t gotten a raise in 33, almost 34, years.”

Over the years there have been proposals to expand the bill to include water bottles and energy drinks, to double the deposit to a dime per container, to allow the state to recover the unclaimed deposits and to kill the program.

The bottle bill, which was passed in 1978 with the support of then Rep. Terry Branstad, has become something akin to the flag, motherhood and apple pie in Iowa, though. Just as the bottle bill has become institutionalized, so has opposition to changing it.

“It’s been there for 30 years, and it’s worked well, we think,” said Michael Heller, a lobbyist for the Iowa Beer Wholesalers Association. The group is registered as undecided on the proposals this year but generally opposes bottle bill changes.

“It may not be perfect, but we’ve put a lot of effort into making it work,” Heller said.

Kibbie and Wittneben argue their proposal — filed separately in the Senate and House — would help ensure the system continues to work. Since 1978, redemption centers and retailers have had to squeeze the penny they get to help pay higher expenses.

Ten states have bottle bills of one sort or another. There’s been little action in recent years, mostly because of opposition from the beverage industry. It argues redemption systems disrupt sales and create higher prices.

However, bills related to beverage container issues have surfaced in 23 states in the past year. Only Delaware has repealed a bottle law recently.

In Iowa, every proposal for change has been met with stiff opposition from critics who say the once innovative bottle bill has outlived its need and usefulness.

“Tinkering with an inefficient system doesn’t make sense,” and the Kibbie and Wittneben bills don’t make the system more efficient, said Scott Sundstrom, who lobbies for the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. Allowing redemption centers to keep another penny per container would “prop up an inefficient system.”

Inefficient, perhaps, but definitely necessary, said Linda Hinton of the Iowa State Association of Counties.

That extra cent would help ensure the viability of redemption centers, especially in rural areas. Those centers “are the linchpin of the bottle bill,” she said.

Grocers, bottlers and distributors are, for the most part, opposed to any expansion or any change “that makes an inefficient system more inefficient,” Sundstrom said.

Kibbie’s all for making the system more efficient. For example, rather than separate Coke from Pepsi from Budweiser, containers should be sorted by material — plastic, glass, aluminum, he said.

For the most part, grocers, bottlers and distributors would prefer a move toward single-stream, curbside recycling. In communities where that is the practice, the recycling authority, whether public or private, reclaims the scrap value of aluminum and other materials to offset the cost of collecting and sorting, Sundstrom said.

That might work someday, Wittneben and Hinton say, but it doesn’t exist on a broad scale, especially in rural Iowa.

“If we could get from where we are to there, we would be interested,” Hinton said, “but in the meantime, the redemptions centers need that penny.”

Retailers and the beverage industry tend to encourage lawmakers and policymakers to take a long-term view and see bottle and can redemption as part of a bigger picture.

“I’m all for having a bigger discussion,” Kibbie said. “I’m all for changing the system, but I haven’t seen anyone get a bill passed. It’s been tried, but every time it gets bogged down.”

Iowa’s bottle deposits by the numbers

– 1.9 billion containers are sold each year in Iowa.

– 86 percent of beverage containers, or 1.65 billion, are redeemed annually.

– Iowa residents recycle an average of 563 containers per person each year.

– The bottle law is credited with the recycling of 82,352 tons of material per year.

– If Iowa’s law was expanded to include water, iced tea, juice and sport drink containers, 335 million more containers could be collected each year. Those containers account for more than 21 percent of the beverage market.

Source: Iowa Recycling Association

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