Letters to the editor: Iowa’s bottle deposit law is 40 years old. It’s time for some updates.

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

By Paula Vaughan, League of Women Voters of Johnson County co-president, Iowa City

It’s been 40 years since Iowa led the nation with a bottle deposit law. The legislation, introduced by Gov. Robert Ray was adopted by a Republican-majority legislature in 1978 and enacted into law in 1979. This was a revolutionary concept not only in reducing litter on our roadways but also in helping retain necessary raw manufacturing materials in the supply chain.

All was good in the Hawkeye state for many years. Iowans worked together to keep roadways picked up and frequently donated proceeds from redeeming bottles and cans to nonprofit organizations to support charitable causes. The bottle bill has also supplemented the income of disadvantaged people in need of monetary resources and still does today.

As the years passed, new retailers entered the market to compete for sales and customers. Simultaneously, the grocery industry was building new stores and remodeling existing ones to expand their markets. Some grocery stores — far too few — made adequate accommodations to provide redemption center locations within their facilities to better serve the convenience of their customers and the cleanliness of the transaction. Conscientious retailers realize investing in technology and adequately staffed redemption areas to offer a clean, convenient experience attracts customers to their business to redeem bottles and cans. Customers take redemption receipts into the store to collect the deposit, where they spend more on convenience items with higher mark-ups than typical grocery items.

The stores that remodeled and built redemption areas followed the law. Savvy businesses also installed reverse vending technology (automated redemption machines) that benefit the environment in innovative, more significant and efficient ways. The machines are the first step toward proper recycling of plastic, aluminum and glass to meet the container’s full lifecycle and highest use. Recyclable containers thrown in recycling bins are too often contaminated by nonrelated materials, which means these containers have a single use — one that is used only one time and is unable to maximize its life expectancy of multiple uses.

Plastic, the biggest offender, isn’t just a litter issue in Iowa. It’s become a global issue. Plastic is everywhere — it’s in our U.S. waterways, it’s leaching into our oceans and it’s impacting wildlife and our environment.

The coronavirus pandemic changed lives and how business is conducted. Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported recyclable containers at redemption points do not impact the virus spread, Gov. Kim Reynolds suspended can and bottle redemption in Iowa, halting redemption. Soon manufacturers began to feel the pinch of supply shortages.

Perhaps America should have a federal law to address this issue. Until that happens we must tackle this problem at the state level.

A solution must be found to the ongoing discussion of Iowa’s bottle bill, also known as Iowa’s deposit law. Recycling beverage containers is a large part of the equation but not the entire answer.

There are many parts to this growing issue. Forty years is a long time without review or updates. Now it’s time for a comprehensive solution — not a study and not another review. A resolution must be found before another crisis appears — and everyone has a part to play.

  • Retailers should consider incorporating reverse vending technology (automated redemption machines) in their facilities.
  • Lawmakers must increase the deposit and the handling fee and direct an increase in the handling fee to redemption centers making them economically viable for entrepreneurs and/or retailers.
  • Lawmakers must determine if the bill should address expanding the beverage market to include more bottles and cans that use the very same containers (i.e., bottled water, tea and energy drinks) as current beverages covered by the existing law.
  • Lawmakers must determine greater and more stringently-enforced penalties to be assessed to violators and determine what agency will assess the penalties and ensure adherence to the law.

We’re all in this together and we’ll all get through this together. We can achieve success all Iowans deserve, but only if we work together and do not sidestep responsibilities.

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