Ore. to double bottle-recycling rate to 10 cents a can

Associated Press

Portland, Ore. — Oregon was the first state in the nation to give 5-cent refunds for recycling used soda cans and glass bottles more than 45 years ago.

Today, with other recycling options now commonplace, this eco-trailblazing Pacific Northwest state is hoping to revamp the program by doubling that refund on bottled and canned water, soda, beer and malt beverages — regardless what their labels say.

Oregon’s 1971 Bottle Bill — groundbreaking for its era in combating litter — has been replicated in nine other states plus the U.S. territory of Guam. Michigan is the only other with an across-the-board payout as high as 10 cents per bottle, although booze and other large bottles carry a 10-cent payout in California and 15 cents in Maine and Vermont.

The system was a big hit in those initial years. But as curbside recycling and pickup services were brought on board two decades later — not to mention inflationary effects on the nickel’s value — the rates at which Oregonians cashed in their bottles and cans gradually tumbled from 90 percent averages to under 70 percent of all bottle sales statewide in 2014 and 2015.

That decline thus triggered the new 10-cent rate—a provision that lawmakers added in 2011 to the Bottle Bill in 2011. The higher refund goes into effect Saturday, and the most frugal of Oregonians have been hoarding bottles for months in anticipation of the roll-out.

Long lines are expected at the 20 bottle-redemption sites across the state as the roughly 2,000 or so grocery stores that participate in the refund program brace for a bustling weekend. Even the press pool at the state Capitol in Salem has been buying cases of water bottles and stockpiling the empties to pay for a pizza party.

Ted Ferrioli, Republican leader of the state Senate from John Day, Oregon, says he’s seen some creative takes on the program by schools and community organizations to help raise money for kids to go to camp or 4-H.

“They put a horse trailer out with a sign on it and it fills up and then they take it in and cash it out,” Ferrioli recalled with a chuckle.

Naysayers, meanwhile, are quick to criticize the higher amount as bad policy during a time of crisis for Oregon’s upcoming budget, where jobs and taxes are on the line to help close a whopping $1.6 billion deficit.

Among the 10 Bottle Bill states, Oregon and Iowa differ in that private beverage industry, rather than state government, operates their bottle programs and claims all the unredeemed refunds.

Oregonians cashed in slightly more than 1 billion bottles and cans in 2015, roughly two-thirds of total sales that year, according to a 2017 report to the Legislature by the Oregon Liquor and Control Commission, which aids distributors in administering program operations.

That equates to almost $30 million in gross bottle refunds that Oregonians never redeemed, all of which stayed with local and national beverage distributors such as Pepsi and the Pendleton Bottle Company, plus others who participate in the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative.

Some of those funds help beverage distributors operate the program that involves transporting recyclables to processing sites and reimbursing grocery stores, which don’t make a profit but are still required to accept empty containers and refund consumers.

But critics like Dan Meek, a Portland public interest attorney and spokesman for the Oregon Progressive Party, says at least some of that unclaimed cash would be better off going into state coffers for education, health care or other public services.

“This is how the programs work in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Connecticut,” he said. “New York retains 80 percent of unclaimed refunds; Michigan retains 75 percent. Oregon currently retains 0 percent.”

More recently, distributors participating in the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative nonprofit are using the funds to build, operate and staff upscale stand-alone redemption sites, which lifts the burden away from grocery stores. The process has been slow-going, however, with pushback from local communities and land-use issues, although the co-op is now retrofitting huge shipping containers as an alternative.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat from the small town of Scappoose, Oregon, northwest of Portland, said the shift away from grocery stores has been among her concerns about the system, which hampers smaller communities like hers. But, she and others respect that it’s part of Oregon’s identity.

“The Bottle Bill has been a beloved institution of Oregon,” Johnson said. “The rationale was, we don’t want this crap all over the roads and the beach, it’s gross. And so if you give them money to take them back some place, everybody wins.”