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A boost for the bottle bill.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Oregonians are proud that their state pioneered container deposit legislation, but they needn't listen very hard to hear rumblings of discontent about the bottle bill. Redemption rates are falling, returning empties is less convenient than it used to be, and some are asking whether the bottle bill has outlived its purpose now that most people have curbside recycling service. The unhappiness may abate if, as is likely, the deposit on cans and bottles doubles to a dime in 2017.

The deposit has been a nickel since the Legislature passed the bottle bill in 1971. If the deposit had kept up with inflation, it would now be nearly 30 cents. Not surprisingly, redemption rates have declined. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission reports that 68 percent of containers were returned for deposit in 2014, down from 71 percent the year before. In 2011, the Legislature approved a 10-cent deposit if redemption rates dip below 80 percent in two consecutive years.

The erosion of the value of the deposit, however, is not the only reason for the decline in redemption rates. In 2007, the Legislature passed a bill requiring a deposit on plastic water bottles. The redemption rate for plastic bottles is 55 percent, which has dragged down the aggregate rate.

In addition, the process of returning containers for a deposit has changed. The days of taking a load of bottles and cans to the back of a grocery store where they'd be counted by a clerk are all but gone. Most retailers now have container recycling machines that too often are broken, overfilled or busy. Even when the machines are working, using them involves standing in a puddle made up of equal parts rainwater, soda pop and beer. And increasingly, the machines are being shifted to redemption centers such as the one on West Broadway in Eugene, where the annoyances of redeeming containers are compounded by the inconvenience of having to stop at a separate location.

Not surprisingly, some people - no one knows how many - recycle their returnable containers, which helps explain declining redemption rates. Recycling was in its infancy when the bottle bill became law, but curbside recycling service is now available to 80 percent of Oregonians. The goal of keeping glass, metal and plastic out of the waste stream is as well-served by recycling as by the bottle bill.

The bottle bill, however, was not approved as a waste-reduction measure. Its initial purpose was to fight litter, and it has succeeded. Containers used to make up 40 percent of the roadside litter in Oregon. Now it's 6 percent. Anyone who would toss an empty can out of a car window is probably not a conscientious recycler. Eliminating the bottle bill in favor of curbside recycling would be a big setback for litter reduction efforts.

Doubling the deposit could have a reinvigorating effect on the bottle bill. In Michigan, the only bottle-bill state with a 10-cent deposit, the redemption rate is 97 percent. Non-profit groups that conduct bottle-and-can drives, such as the Boy Scouts, would raise more money. Roadside litter would be reduced. The frustrations of redeeming containers would be offset by a doubling of the payout at the end of the process.

The frustration level will be in flux over the next few years regardless of the deposit amount. The number of redemption centers will be increasing statewide, improving the convenience of the container return system. And in 2018, the bottle bill will be broadened to cover cans and bottles containing all beverages except wine, liquor or dairy products. A 10-cent deposit would boost volumes at the redemption centers, and get the expanded bottle bill off to a good start.

If the grumbling grows louder after an increase in the deposit, the bottle bill will need further legislative attention. But the decline in the bottle bill's popularity and the drop in redemption rates parallels the shrinkage of the deposit's real value. Oregon should try re-energizing the bottle bill by partially restoring that value before contemplating more drastic remedies.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 9, 2015
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