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Can Grocers Crush the Bottle Bill? PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 08 January 2002 18:00
When the Iowa legislature convenes next week, it should expect a new round of lobbying from the state’s grocers to repeal the state’s “Bottle Bill” – the recycling/litter-control law that requires a five-cent deposit on containers for beer, soda, wine, and other beverages.

In early December, grocers around the state held a drive asking customers to sign a petition favoring repeal of the 23-year-old law. The premise of the petition was that used bottles and cans represent a health risk to consumers and employees because of bacteria and the danger of food contamination. The slogan of the campaign was striking: Your grocery store isn’t a garbage dump. The Iowa Grocery Industry Association claims it would prefer an expanded curbside-recycling system, although it has not offered a proposal.

Both Davenport and Bettendorf offer curbside recycling, but to handle the increased volume from Bottle Bill-covered containers, existing programs might cost consumers more. Bottle Bill advocates also say curbside recycling doesn’t account for out-of-home consumption.

Grocers argue that the health risk of the Bottle Bill is one of cross-contamination: A person brings dirty cans and bottles into a store in a grocery cart, for instance, and then customers use that contaminated cart to haul their children around the store or shop.

But the petition drive drew the ire of proponents of the Bottle Bill, who claimed that grocers had no scientific evidence for their claims.

They were right.

Grocery-store chain Hy-Vee said this week that it’s in the process of compiling scientific evidence and lining up experts to make its case. “We do know that bacteria … [that cause illnesses] are present in the cans and bottles,” said Ruth Mitchell, assistant vice president of communications for Hy-Vee. But that information comes from “preliminary” tests, she said, and the company is doing more extensive testing now with an outside agency. The results should be ready by the end of the month, Mitchell said.

Even if the state’s grocers assemble a battery of health experts who claim there are health risks associated with the return of cans and bottles to grocery stores, proponents of the Bottle Bill – and public support was gauged at 85 percent in a survey two years ago – will remain skeptical. The grocery industry can’t point to a single case of food contamination or illness resulting from beverage containers being returned to a store, so grocers’ stated concerns are hypothetical.

Nonetheless, Mitchell said grocers plan to release the results of the drive next week, although she declined to say how many people signed the petitions. She would only say that “we got a large number of signatures.”

No matter how successful the drive was, it’s curious that grocers would premise a petition drive on a claim that they couldn’t back up. Mitchell was evasive on this point, saying that grocery stores wanted to have something to show legislators, who generally think the Bottle Bill has overwhelming public support. “It was hard for them to take us seriously,” Mitchell said. She further added that public support for the Bottle Bill is frequently overstated; when given the option of curbside recycling versus the current deposit system, she said, many customers say they would prefer a curbside program.

Of course, it would have been much easier to convince the public – and therefore legislators – with doctors and public-health officials talking about the health risks of used cans and bottles in grocery stores. That’s one reason Bottle Bill proponents don’t think grocers are being up-front about their reasons for wanting to eliminate the deposit law.

“What they’re talking about is competition,” said Dewayne Johnson, executive director of the Iowa Recycling Association. “They don’t want to offer a service, but they don’t want a competitor to offer the service.”

Johnson is alluding to the fact that the Bottle Bill allows grocery stores to not accept bottles and cans for redemption; they can, instead, designate an approved “redemption center” at which people can return their bottles and cans.

But if a grocery store or chain did this, Johnson argues, they’d lose business. According to a study by the national Container Recycling Institute, 80 percent of people who return bottles and cans to a store for the deposit purchase something from the store.

“It drives traffic,” Johnson said. “It brings people to the store.”

“When I have a bunch of cans to take back … where I’m going to get groceries that day is determined … by their attitude,” said Frank Holst, treasurer of the Eagle View Group of the Sierra Club. In that way, grocers that embrace the Bottle Bill could actually boost business, he said: “They could turn it into a plus.”

The business generated by cans and bottles is a key reason grocery stores continue to accept bottles and cans even though Mitchell claims stores lose thousands of dollars each month accepting them. (She said she did not have specific numbers.)

Grocers argue that there aren’t enough redemption centers – slightly more than 100 statewide – for grocery stores to cease taking cans and bottles. And if a recycling center were to go out of business, grocery stores would be forced to take bottles and cans again.

But Johnson argues that if a grocery-store chain as large as Hy-Vee were to stop accepting cans and bottles, redemption centers would pop up all over the state to meet the new demand. That might be even truer if the handling fee paid by distributors to grocery stores and redemption centers – currently a penny per container – were raised to two cents.

Mitchell did not disagree with that assessment, but noted, “Somebody has to take a leap of faith … before a switch can ever be made.” And, she argued, some stores – especially in rural areas – would still be forced to accept cans and bottles because there wouldn’t be a nearby redemption center.

Even so, Mitchell said that because of health risks, Hy-Vee would consider stopping bottle and can redemption if the legislature doesn’t repeal the bottle bill. She did not offer a time frame in which that decision would be made.

Johnson said he doubts grocers can get the Bottle Bill repealed. With the current state budget crisis, “the legislature is going to be too busy to deal with this,” he said. “This is important, but it’s not top-tier important.”

It’s also possible that grocers’ efforts on the Bottle Bill are diversionary. Johnson lamented that he’s been forced to defend the Bottle Bill when he’d rather be addressing other recycling issues. “I would really like to be working on tires, appliances, and computers,” he said. “Instead, we’re working on a problem that’s 93 percent solved.” (Approximately 93 percent of Bottle Bill-eligible containers are recycled under the current system.)

And therein lies an important point. Perhaps the Iowa Grocery Industry Association has no expectation that the Bottle Bill will ever be repealed; instead, maybe it simply wants to ensure that the bill doesn’t get expanded. Governor Tom Vilsack and proponents of the Bottle Bill would prefer that the law cover all sorts of single-serving beverage containers, including bottles for fruit juices, sports beverages, and drinking water. Such a change might add 250 million bottles a year to the deposit system, which currently handles about 1.5 billion containers.

With an effort by environmentalists to expand the Bottle Bill, Holst said, “if they [grocers] push against the old one, two forces nil each other out, and things don’t get any worse” from the stores’ point of view. In other words, the anti-Bottle Bill movement could be an effort to maintain the status quo.

Mitchell said that expanded the law makes little sense. The cans and bottles covered under the current Bottle Bill account for approximately 3 percent of the solid-waste stream in states without deposit laws, and containers for other beverages would only increase the number of items by 17 percent. “It’s a small percent of a small percent,” she said.

A larger problem, she said, would be that the increased volume would add more than 100 different types of containers, increasing sorting and storage costs for grocery stores.
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