Expand the Bottle Bill: Some Solutions

Russell Sadler

When former Oregon Governor Tom McCall was urging the Legislature to pass State Rep. Paul Hanneman’s Bottle Bill in 1971, McCall vowed to “put a price on the head of every beverage can and bottle” sold in the state. Hanneman, a fishing guide from Cloverdale, wanted to control the litter -- pop tops, plastic rings that hold six packs together and the bottles and cans -- that was showing up in fish and along Oregon’s roadsides and beaches.

McCall had a larger goal. McCall wanted to make the beverage industry, grocery stores and their consumers financially responsible for the streams of litter they were generating. For decades, the beverage industry took responsibility for their glass bottles. They were too valuable to throw away. Consumers all over the country were urged to bring the bottles back to the grocery store in exchange for reclaiming a deposit, which were returned to the bottlers on the same trucks that brought the deliveries, washed and reused.

In the 1960s, the national beverage industry abandoned the deposit system as inefficient and too costly -- to them, anyway. They switched to cans and unreturnable throwaway bottles. And throw them away Americans did. That created the litter problem that disturbed Rep. Hanneman.

Economists have a name for this process. They call it “externalizing costs” -- that is, make someone else pay part of the cost of selling and consuming beverages or any other commercial activity. In this case the “someone else” was the taxpayer who paid the price of cleaning up litter.

In 1971, McCall and his staff were smart enough to realize that although the beverage industry had abandoned the deposit system it was still ingrained in Oregonians’ habits. Oregon’s much-discussed and much-studied Bottle Bill simply mandated the return of the deposit system in Oregon. It has worked well for most of the 36 years it’s been in effect. Oregonians rose to McCall’s challenge and returned the vast majority of their bottles and cans and claimed their deposit. Unreclaimed deposits are held by the beverage distributors.

In recent years, however, the rate of return has fallen for several reasons:

As a result of these developments, return and recycling of beverage containers is declining and their presence in the litter stream is rising again.

Although the food processing industry’s throwaway packaging remains a growing, multidimensional litter problem, there is evidence that a deposit on a few very visible items -- nonalcoholic beverages and beer -- effectively encourages more recycling and helps discourage littering. For example, Oregon, even with a nickel deposit, recycles a higher percentage of beverage containers that the State of Washington with no deposit.

So what should the legislature do?

Oregon legislators need to remember that this is the rationale behind regulating beverage bottles in the first place. It’s an ethical principle we all learned in kindergarten: Leaving a place as well off as you found it is your responsibility.

  • Ron (unverified)

    The deposit ought to at least be doubled, if not tripled and added to non-carbonated beverages. If all costs were internalized, my guess is that we would have very little pollution and waste. It is amazing to me that sold called free marketers can be against the basic principle. It is good for business because it encourages leaner and greener manufacturing processes and it is good for society as a whole.

  • (Show?)

    I have many, many ideas about how to expand the Bottle Bill -- but we know that industry is going to fight tooth and nail against 'em.

    Everytime a Bottle Bill is expanded anywhere in the country, industry comes in with the same old line: The changes are too confusing.

    I have a simple suggestion for 2007. Let's remove one single word from the Bottle Bill law... "carbonated". Let's simply grow the current system to include noncarbonated beverages. Leave everything else alone.

    No, this isn't a full solution to all that ails the bottle bill --- but there's absolutely no way that voters will believe that the change is "confusing" when all we've done is remove "carbonated" from the law.

  • (Show?)

    one valuable aspect of what Kari's proposing is that incremental changes are much easier to pass than sweeping ones. thus the bills to end discrimination against gays & lesbians were incomplete but doable; extending the bottle bill to non-carbs can pass. and once one incremental step has been taken, the next one can be approached. in time, sexual orientation will not be an issue. in time, litter will be virtually eliminated. these things won't happen in one grand, glorious swoop. they'll happen slowly, in an evolutionary manner. but they'll happen if we make the initial step, however inadequate or unsatisying.

  • (Show?)

    in time, sexual orientation will not be an issue. in time, litter will be virtually eliminated.

    I'm not so sure about that... but incremental change is a useful and important approach, especially when revolutionary change seems stymied.

  • djk (unverified)

    there's absolutely no way that voters will believe that the change is "confusing" when all we've done is remove "carbonated" from the law.

    Perhaps you have more faith in "voters" than I do. There was absolutely nothing confusing about the last effort to expand the bottle bill, but the industry spend something like $3.5 million to convince voters it was, and ultimately defeated the bill. This was after massive early support for the measure every poll taken.

    As one of the supporters said afterwards, with three and a half million dollars you can convince people water runs uphill. But the supporters -- lead by OSPIRG, I think -- raised only a couple of hundred thousand. Lesson: if you try to do this at the ballot box, you need to line up at least a million dollars to keep you message from being drowned by a flood of industry lies.

    However, the legislature is different. Yes, lobbyists have access, but I don't get why a Democratic-controlled legislature couldn't pass a sweeping reform of the bottle bill, including a substantial increase in deposits. Are that many Democrats in the grocery lobby's pocket? Is every Republican going to vote lock-step with beverage manufacturers?

    Are politicians really afraid of being punished at the polls for expanding the bottle bill?

  • (Show?)

    However, the legislature is different....

    Yes, but the grocery lobby has already indicated that they'll refer any bill to the ballot. So, the question for supporters is: What can we pass that will survive an election?

    And while I'd agree that it was easy to understand the last bill, the argument was there that it was "confusing".

    Like Tom Potter's $25 pledge, a one-word bottle bill update is so easy to understand that it couldn't be confused.

  • Joe12Pack (unverified)

    Expand the bottle bill? How about retiring it to the annals of history. It has served it's purpose and is no longer necessary.

    Anyone here recall what led to the creation of measures like this? Back in the good 'ol days, litter was rampant. Folks thoughtlessly chucked their garbage everywhere, beverage containers being some of the most common items. Bottles, broken glass- cans and those god awful pull tabs were strewn about. Tacking on a 5 cent deposit on the most commonly used containers that had no manufacturers bottle deposit (remember those?) made good sense. It was a bold statement against littering, encouraging recycling and helped make people think twice by attaching a monetary cost to their bad behavior. 5 cents was a significant fee back then.

    These days, far more people get the message, habits have changed dramatically and recycling is rapidly becoming the norm rather than the exception. Our societies eco-consciousness continues to grow and that trend will continue. We no longer need the bottle bill. It was a good idea then, but now not so much. Expanding it would only create more of hassle for both merchant & consumer in the form of increased costs, time and labor. Does anybody honestly believe that keeping the current system or expanding it would actually result in a significantly cleaner Oregon? Just recycle your stuff, Dude. It's not 1965 anymore. Chucking empty beer cans into lakes or streams isnt cool anymore. Packing out your garbage & curbside recycling is. We get the point. We'll be good. Now get off our backs with these wasteful, inefficient schemes.

    Incidentally, I was raised to leave nature in as good or better condition than I found it and adhere to that policy to this day. Not looking for a pat on the back for practicing common sense, but don't confuse my dislike for the bottle bill as an anti-environment stance.

  • (Show?)

    Back in the good 'ol days, litter was rampant. Folks thoughtlessly chucked their garbage everywhere, beverage containers being some of the most common items. ... Chucking empty beer cans into lakes or streams isnt cool anymore. Packing out your garbage & curbside recycling is. We get the point. We'll be good.

    Somebody'd better turn Mr. 12Pack into the DMV. He drives with his eyes closed.

  • Jim Holman (unverified)

    Before we require a deposit on more containers, let's look at what is involved in returning the containers.

    I take cans and bottles to the Gresham Fred Meyer. Back in the "old days" -- like maybe six or seven years ago -- you could take containers to the back of the store, where teenage employees counted them and handed you a receipt. So you could drop them off, go shopping, then pick up the receipt.

    Now, Freds has outdoor machines. So instead of spending time shopping, you spend time outside, sometimes in the freezing east wind. In addition, you have the pleasure of getting old soda and beer spilled on your clothes and shoes. Sometimes you have to wait in line for ten or fifteen minutes. It is very rare to be able to run even one bag of containers through the machines without a breakdown. There is supposed so be someone monitoring the machines; sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't.

    So what used to be a convenient task now is a major hassle, even assuming that the machines work. So before we double the number of drink containers being returned to the stores, let's ask whether the current system is even up to the task. In my experience, it's barely adequate now.

  • ws (unverified)

    Oh, here we go again...this same circular argument, the same whining complaints about bottle redemption facilities, the same feeble excuses for not taking neccessary steps to recycle and re-use everything that can be.

    It's radical, but I'd go for simply eliminating the word "carbonated" from the bottle bill. This would bring a major, needed change in eliminating waste. Additional 5 cent redemptions occurring from this change would make bottle returns a far more lucrative source of income for can gatherers than it is now. Because of this, probably anybody not wanting to personally redeem their bottles and cans, wouldn't have to anymore.

    Concerning the less pleasant aspects of bottle and can redemption with current redemption center design and technology, most likely, improvements can and probably will be made in this area. With a little more engineering, cans presented for redemption could be automatically washed with recycled water as part of the redemption process.

    I'd like to see strict limitations imposed on the use of plastics for bottling too, but since that's off topic, I'll leave off here.

  • Jim Holman (unverified)

    ws writes: ".. .the same whining complaints about bottle redemption facilities. . .

    This may be too complex for you to grasp, but if you want to expand the current system, then the machines have to be reliable. I've showed up more than once with a shopping cart full of containers, NONE of the machines were working, and there was no store employee around. So five or six of us are standing around looking at each other until somebody finishes a coffee break and gets the machines operating again. You think people are going to say "yeah, this is great, let's double the number of containers to be returned." Not likely. Get me a machine with a mean time between failure of more than five minutes, and I'll think about it. Until then, forget about it.

  • (Show?)

    Jim, the fundamental problem is that the money for unclaimed deposits goes to the distributors -- while the retailers are the ones that are responsible for the consumer-end redemption system.

    There aren't any standards (obviously) for how good a redemption system they have to maintain. A more comprehensive reform would certainly set standards for redemption systems -- and shift some of the revenue from unclaimed deposits to the retailers....

    Until then, the law doesn't have any incentives for retailers to improve their systems. In the meantime, let's remove "carbonated" -- there's 125 million water bottles sold in Oregon annually now, and they're mostly winding up in our landfills. That's gotta change.

  • ws (unverified)

    It seems as though people commenting here before on this general subject have argued equally for and against the idea that the retailer makes plenty of money from carbonated drinks to adequately maintain their redemption facility, and shouldn't need the additional money represented by unclaimed deposits. If there is some question about whether retailers are being fairly compensated for the redemption service they offer, this definitely needs to be addressed and corrected if they aren't, in the interest of the most convenient and effective recycling routine possible.

    Jim Holman's experience isn't what I see here out at the Cedar Hill's Blvd Winco. In a pretty small room, there's about 8-10 machines. I've seen one or two machines off line, but not all of them at one time. Yeah, the place kind of smells, but as I said before, this is probably a short term tech problem that will likely be addressed in time. There's usually at least one attendant on duty specifically assigned to the redemption area. Winco has some people with a certain degree of disability working for them. Showing novices, impatient and cranky people how to feed the machines and get the machines unjammed is one of the jobs there that they seem to be able to do just fine.

  • Curt (unverified)

    "Does anybody honestly believe that keeping the current system or expanding it would actually result in a significantly cleaner Oregon?"

    Sure. It'd get people to quit pitching their Evian bottles out their car windows, for one..


  • (Show?)

    Jim Holman's experience isn't what I see here out at the Cedar Hill's Blvd Winco.

    Jim, maybe you can tell us what grocery store you go to that's doing it so badly? And secondly, why not change grocery stores?

  • (Show?)

    I use a Safeway near my house. The machines are indoors, there are three for cans and two for bottles (one for plastics), and while sometimes they get full and need to be changed out, they rarely refuse to function. Once in a while an item I KNOW is "participating" will get kicked out, but usually a re-feed works just fine.

    Yeah, it smells weird and your hands are nasty after a couple hundred cans and bottles. But frankly, we've all got our part to play. New Seasons' CEO admits that the process is a burden on his stores, but they're part of the community and it's done for good reason. Why can't individuals have the same attitude?

    The important thing is to bring more items under the deposit umbrella. Once that's secured, we can spend all the time we want discussing how best to share the burden of redemption. But it's not right to fail to recycle 125 million water bottles because it will make life a little more difficult than letting them sit on the roadside.

  • Jim Holman (unverified)

    Kari writes: "Jim, maybe you can tell us what grocery store you go to that's doing it so badly? And secondly, why not change grocery stores?"

    It's the Fred Meyer in Gresham on Burnside. I suppose it's possible they have gotten better. The spouse and I gave up on them about a year ago. Now we just drop off bags of cans and bottles near the machines and take off. I figure someone runs them through the machines. Or not. Maybe the wind blows them away.

    The last time I tried all the machines broke, and I was left with an entire shopping cart full of containers. I wheeled them into the store, left the cart at the main desk and told the manager that that was my donation to Fred Meyer, and that they should take the money and use it towards a preventive maintenance program.

    Other than that I don't mind going to the store. I just end up paying five cents more per drink, and figure we'll survive the financial "blow." But I'm too damned busy and tired to raise my blood pressure trying to use machines that seem to break down every few minutes. But I sure as hell don't favor putting any more drink containers into the "system." We don't throw the other containers out the car window. We recycle, and it takes me about five seconds to dump a bag of containers into a recycle container. Running the same bag through a machine . . one . . . container . . . at . . . a . . . time . . . I'm not interested, and I'm not inclined to lose any more money than we already are. Ordinary recycling works great for me.

  • ws (unverified)

    Maybe of even more concern than containers being thrown to the side of the road, is that they're being hauled many miles away, through the Columbia Gorge to Arlington to fill up the landfill there. Hauled to a piece of land that had to be designated a 'wasteland' as a partial means of allaying reservations over designating the land as a landfill in the first place. To me, this seems like such an amazingly stupid waste and a dereliction of social responsibility in so many ways. A broader assignation of deposit value to beverage containers would be a significant step towards countering that lack of responsibility.

    There is a real lack of consciousness amongst the public regarding the implications of a production philosophy that doesn't incorporate into it, an obligation to recycle and re-use the containers used to provide the product to customers. When the opportunity presents itself, ask people where they believe their non-deposit returnables will wind up, particularly those that go to the trash can. I don't think most know that it has to be hauled down through the Columbia River Gorge. Worse is, I don't think most believe they can do much about it for some reason on the order of 'business has to be competitive'. It's long past time for a dramatic change in that outlook.

    Here's one last thought that just crossed my mind: Those people standing at the freeway exits? They might be fine with somebody rolling down their window to hand them some bags of returnable cans and bottles....which isn't to say that cash wouldn't be more readily appreciated. It's worth a try.

  • (Show?)

    Ordinary recycling works great for me.

    Of course, state policy isn't designed for you, Jim. It's designed for all of us. In fact, the bottle bill is explicitly designed for the least responsible of us.

    If you're happy paying the extra nickel and just putting those items on the curb (or giving 'em to someone else), then go right ahead.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us will keep worrying about the other 3.5 million Oregonians who aren't quite as saintly as you, Jim.

  • Lee Barrett (unverified)

    I made this point in a posting earlier this month, but there are reasons the redeeming process is so unplesant. The machines are owned by the distributors, not the grocers. As a result if you do not redeem your container the distributor gets to keep the money (estimated to be around $10 million a year). All the grocer gets is having to staff the machines and trying to find a place on their property to deal with all the returned containers. The grocers get no handling fee for this work. The grocers can probably handle the addition of water bottles passed by the Senate this week. Any expansion beyond that has to have some other structure for redemption outside the current "return to retail" which many of the above postings demonstrate don't work. That is why those in Salem who are pressing for a modernization of the bottle bill are talking about redemption centers as an option for taking containers back to the stores. These redemption centers would get a handling fee for the containers. Thus they would have an incentive to do a good job and present the comsumer with a clean, staffed facility to come to. As for curbside I'll add my voice to the chorus of those who point to the data that shows you get far fewer returns in a curbside program than in a deposit program. I know it's nice to think we all recycle at the curb every container not covered with a deposit, but it's simply not true. When you have a sport drink at the gym, a iced tea from the vending machine at work or pass out water bottles at your kids games, do you then take the empties back to your house and save them for recycling day? Statistics show the answer is no. Finally let's not forget Russell's opening comments, the new bottel bill system has to have responsibility put on those who create the beverages in the first place. If they are making money from introducing these containers into the market place, they should have the financial responsibility for dealing with them when they are empty.

  • (Show?)

    I think redemption centers are the way to go. The state, grocers and distributors should share the cost of construction and initial equipment, and distributors ONLY should staff and maintain them (with state oversight). They get the money that isn't returned from redemptions; they should bear the ongoing cost for returns.

    Failing that, the state and distributors should work out a shared compensation schedule for grocers to cover their efforts, not necessarily at 100% but just as a good faith measure. The responsibility would then be on grocers to offer indoor or sufficiently climate-controlled facilities, and accept any containers sold in Oregon that carry a deposit.

    We can work this out.

  • Owen (unverified)
    <h2>I wrote a note to my congressman and senator basically stating that is a good idea but needs refinement, such as more places to recycle so I don't have to wait and also the fact that some places will not take all pieces, just the ones that they sold, which I understand. Congress should set up a process where all business that recycle get money for every piece that they receive. It is done in other states, why not Oregon. I already recycle everything that I can and if I have to travel 20 miles to recycle and if they raise the price or add more containers then I'm just not going to go to the trouble to separate and just put them with my trash that I presently cannot recycle.</h2>

connect with blueoregon