CORALVILLE, Iowa — Iowa, with its 38-year-old bottle bill, is one of the "rock stars of recycling," a champion of beverage container deposit laws told recyclers Tuesday.
"It ranks up there with motherhood and apple pie," said Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute and a veteran of more than 25 years in the field. She said about a recent poll found 88 percent of Iowa voters — regardless of political preference — support the law.
However, speaking at a panel discussion of the bottle bill at the Iowa Recycling Association conference in Coralville, she agreed with speakers from Iowa's grocer industry that it's time to modernize the bill.
Dustin Miller, a Des Moines lawyer who represents the Iowa Grocery Industry Association at the Capitol, noted that the bill was implemented the year he was born.
"I can assure you I look a lot different than I did in 1979 - at least that's what my mother tells me," Miller said.
The bottle bill established a 5-cent deposit on pop and beer containers as an incentive to recycle cans and bottles and reduce litter. There have been numerous legislative proposals to repeal, scale back or expand the law. None have been successful. That includes House File 575, which Michelle Hurd of the grocery association called a "great starting point."
Backed by the Sustainability Coalition of grocers, convenience stores and beverage industries, the bill cleared two House committees earlier this year before being put on hold for more discussion before the 2018 legislative session.
Although Collins agreed it's obvious HF 575 needs updating, she saw more losers than winners. She recommended expanding the bottle bill to cover water bottles, sports drinks and other beverages, doubling the deposit to 10 cents and increasing the handling fee, which is the lowest in the nation.
Redemption center operators say the current 1-cent handling fee no longer covers their overhead costs, and Collins said it's "not enough to make grocers happy."
Also, once money from a $60 million recycling fund that would be created by HF 575 is depleted, communities would have to pick up the cost of curbside recycling and trash collection.
Although the scrap value of redeemed containers is $36 million, Collins predicted curbside and drop-off recycling programs would not pay for themselves.
The current scrap value is based on "completely segregated, high-quality, high-quantity material," Collins said. Co-mingled material is worth less. For example, she said plastic collected through a deposit program is worth about $20 a ton but worth "a negative $20 a ton" when collected at curbside.
Collins predicted the percentage of containers recycled would drop from the current 86 percent in Iowa to closer to the national average of less than 40 percent if the bill passes as written.
But HF 575 "is not a line in the sand," argued Miller.
He called increasing the deposit a hard sell in this political environment and raised cautions over Collins' comparisons with Oregon, which increased its deposit to 10 cents, added water bottles and is set to add more beverage containers to its program. He doubts Iowa lawmakers share the mind-set of their Oregon colleagues who also approved recreational and medicinal use of marijuana.
Based on feedback from discussion of HF 575, Miller said it is clear portions of the proposed bill need to be improved. One of the keys would be how redemption centers are folded into any new program. Changes, he added, may have to be phased in.
Moderator Jerry Schnepf of Keep Iowa Beautiful acknowledged that the bottle bill is a "subject that tends to polarize people," but encouraged recyclers to keep open minds and talk to their legislators.