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Cover Story

Bottled up

4/17/2013

When it comes to the proposed “Iowa Better Bottle Bill,” as with almost every other controversy to come before the legislature, there are two sides to every story. In this case, both sides have intelligent arguments backed by indisputable facts, figures and stats. But in the end, we know only two things for certain — two attributes that people on both sides share: 1. They care about the environment, and 2. They care about the economy — especially their own.

Unfortunately one can often come at the expense of the other.

So who wins? Who loses?

Who’s right? Who’s wrong?

As it often goes, the answers aren’t so black and white. So a compromise must be made in order for the conflict to be resolved. Compromise usually means both sides give a little, but what if neither side is willing to budge?

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It’s like two siblings fighting over a toy. The frustrated parent will eventually tower above and decide to either make them share the toy or take it away and “no one gets it.” In this case, though, put in simple terms, the fight is over a penny. A penny. Not even a nickel, which has been the bottle/can deposit price since the original bill was adopted by the Iowa legislature more than three decades ago. When it comes down to profit vs. payout, this dispute is over one cent per recycled container, or rather two cents if the bill passes. But, as any child with a porcelain, slotted piggy knows, enough pennies can fill the bank.

                 

Recycling the nickel

Most Iowans have experienced the process from a consumer’s perspective at least: Paying a nickel deposit on pop or beer purchases and getting one back for each empty container that is redeemed. It’s how many of us funded our childhood hobbies and habits, and it’s a viable way for hobos to buy cigarettes and booze. For the consumer, it works, and it’s simple.

But that’s just one part of the cycle (see handy sidebar illustration). Let’s break it down “Sesame Street” style:

“Grandma’s Market” pays the “Soda Pop Company” a nickel deposit for every can or bottle of pop it purchases for the store. Then it charges little Johnny a nickel for every can or bottle of pop he buys at the store. When Johnny’s all done drinking his pop, he returns to Grandma’s Market to get his nickel back. So Grandma’s Market pays him his nickel, and Johnny is happy.

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Eventually Grandma’s Market has a big sack full of empty bottles and cans. So the Soda Pop Company returns to collect the sack. For all the trouble it went through collecting and storing the empty containers from Johnny and his friends, Grandma’s Market charges the Soda Pop Company a one-cent “handling fee” on top of its due five cent deposit per container reimbursement. So the Soda Pop Company pays six cents to Grandma’s Market for each redeemed container. That extra penny is the store’s payment for complying with the law and providing redemption services for the community.

Doesn’t sound very fair to the Soda Pop Company, though, does it?

“Expansion would create a financial and logistical nightmare for manufacturers, distributors and retailers by placing an undue strain on their operations and increasing product costs,” stated a press release from the Iowa Grocery Industry Association (IGIA), which is lobbying against the bill.

But in the other corner are the environmental groups that view Iowa’s bottle bill as a litter removal program and recycling incentive.

“Gov. Robert Ray and then-State Rep. Terry Branstad had a vision 35 years ago to make this the premier recycling program and the cornerstone of Iowa’s highly successful, integrated, multi-faceted recycling processes that has become a model for states across the nation and internationally,” said Mick Barry, the President of M2B2 LLC and a longtime Iowa recycling executive and advocate. “Iowans are familiar with this law, they know it works and they like it. It’s good for our communities, it’s good for our environment, it’s good for our economy and the system is already in place to handle the new containers. It just makes sense.”

                 

The expansion proposal

The Iowa Bottle Bill was originally established in 1979 as a proclaimed litter-control effort. But as technology has improved and people’s lifestyles have evolved, water, sports drinks and other non-carbonated beverages are now on the market, and advocates of the bill feel such containers should also include the nickel deposit. If people fail to recycle those containers, they enter Iowa landfills, ditches and waterways at what “Iowa Better Bottle Bill” public affairs manager Donald H. McDowell claims is “nearly three times the rate of their bottle bill counterparts.”

CVA_18PAGE 162“And we are losing out on precious jobs, valuable container materials and a more pristine environment,” he declared in a press release.

So with the help of Sen. Robert Dvorsky (D-Coralville), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Iowa Senate, Senate Study Bill 1247 (which, if passed, would also increase the handling fee from one cent to two cents per container) was introduced to the legislature on March 26. The state senate committee held a one-hour hearing on April 4 to give proponents and opponents the opportunity to speak on SSB1247, and it currently sits in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Because of the bill’s $10,000 appropriation component, it was exempt from the April 5 “funnel.”

As of press time, 17 people were listed as lobbyist opponents of the bill, while 21 were listed as lobbying in favor of it (see sidebar).

                 

The argument for

Sen. Robert Dvorsky (D-Coralville).

Sen. Robert Dvorsky (D-Coralville).

“Modernizing Iowa’s Bottle Bill will have a direct and positive impact on Iowa’s economy by not only preserving hundreds of Iowa jobs, but by also adding important new jobs to Iowa’s economy,” Dvorsky said. “By acting on this legislation to include water and other non-carbonated beverage containers to the law this year, we can not only help create good Iowa jobs but we can take important and necessary steps to clean up our environment and make our great state an even better place for generations to come.”

“Countless civic and community organizations, schools, charities and churches have used the bottle bill to raise money to make a difference in the lives of those around us,” Barry added.

Barry’s arguments are backed by the findings of a 2011 study conducted by Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes. Hayes’ findings determined that more than 500 million containers — particularly water bottles, sports drink containers and the like that are hoped to be added to the current deposit law — end up in local landfills, and that trash would be recovered by the Iowa Better Bottle Bill. The report also notes that modernization of the existing bill would simultaneously help in the creation of more than 300 new Iowa jobs while protecting the 870-plus jobs that already exist in the industry.

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And redemption centers would earn better compensation, at no cost to consumers, Hayes noted.

“It can be a hassle for all parties involved, but it’s part of the cost of doing business in Iowa,” McDowell stated. “By annually diverting many thousands of tons of recyclable materials from being littered or land-filled, we save tremendous amounts of energy and of otherwise extracted raw materials, and Iowa is just a cleaner place to live.”

                 

The argument against

Distributors, retailers and redemption centers are prohibited by law from disposing of the redeemed containers into landfills, pretty much forcing them to recycle the materials. No one is disputing the environmental value in that practice, but the IGIA argues that Iowa can do better than the bottle deposit system — that the “outdated” 1970s litter-control measure is a “1970s solution to a 1970s problem.”

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The number for Container Roundup should be 515-276-5171.

“Increased material recovery is the ultimate environmental and economic goal, but then we must ask ourselves, ‘What is the best way to achieve it?’ ” said Michelle Hurd, IGIA president. “Forty out of 50 states have no such laws. There are other ways to achieve a clean state. Recycling must be efficient and sustainable.”

Instead, IGIA and other members of the opposition want to shift the focus to enhancing curbside recycling programs instead of putting the burden of a public problem onto a private industry.

“Iowa does a great job now of recycling residential material,” said Tony Colosimo, who once owned Artistic Waste Services Inc., and who has been in the industry at all levels for 20 years. “When the bottle bill first started we didn’t have curbside recycling. Today over 90 percent of the population have access to curbside recycling. So what you have is a redundant system with the bottle bill.

“Bottles and cans, specifically water bottles, don’t even make up a percentage of the material in the landfills — food waste and construction demolition debris are the two main waste streams and are easily recyclable. Bottles and cans make up about five percent of litter found along roadsides and ditches. That includes beer bottles and cans and Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew and water bottles. Why aren’t we focusing on the other 95 percent of the littler in ditches — the No. 1 thing is cigarette butts. Why don’t we apply a deposit to things like cigarettes? You don’t focus on the small problem. You focus on the big problem.”

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Michelle Hurd, Iowa Grocery Industry Association president.

The IGIA has campaigned heavily for increased curbside recycling in recent years with programs such as “It’s Easy to Recycle” and annual grant awards for communities that purchase equipment for parks and playgrounds made from recycled plastic. It quotes an analysis done in Massachusetts, one of only a handful of other states that has a bottle/can deposit law, when an expansion of its law was proposed there. It determined that for $58 million in new operating expenses that would be incurred, only one-eighth of one percent would be added to that state’s recycling rate.

“When looking at the whole picture, it is easy to see that expanding the bottle bill would prove to be the most costly, least effective measure that Iowa could take to increase recycling,” said Hurd. “It is the most costly because deposit/refund systems are inherently expensive to operate. Fossil fuels are consumed as users return containers to retail locations where they were purchased. They are then picked up and taken to a redemption center for additional sorting and bundling, and then hauled to a recycling center. Expanding the bottle bill to include water, teas and sports drinks will add even more costs. Compare that to the much more convenient, economical method of placing items into a bin stored at home and walked to the curb periodically.”

Hurd refers to a 2006 study from Massachusetts that found the cost associated with adding new types of containers to a typical bottle bill program is more than 7 cents per container.

“Non-carbonated beverages are not bottled and distributed on a state-by-state basis but from centralized distribution centers as demanded,” Hurd said. “It costs money to create packaging, distribution and redemption models that are specific to one state, and those additional costs will be passed along to consumers. Grocery store managers have told me that they will have to add staff and use valuable retail space to accommodate the new returns.

“How we recycle matters. We need to look at what makes the most sense for the future.” CV

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