Some of the most thrifty, eco-conscious Oregon residents, each hauling hundreds of used water bottles and soda cans in trash bags and carts, flocked to bottle-recycling centers and grocery stores Saturday — the first day the per-bottle refund rate doubled to 10 cents.
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 through its so-called Bottle Bill. 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.
The most frugal of Oregonians have been hoarding bottles for months in anticipation of the roll-out. 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.
Many grocery stores and the 20 or so bottle redemption sites across the state were bustling with activity, as expected, on Saturday.
A newly-built BottleDrop redemption site in north Portland, Oregon, had heavy foot traffic steadily throughout the day. Employees say that kind of traffic is usually only seen during peak hours on the typical Saturday.
Portland resident Sarah Marshall says she and her brother come to the BottleDrop location about once a month. This time, though, she says they’ll walk away with about $75, which helps pay for things like gas and various errands.
“Nothing like bills or anything like that — pocket money,” Marshall said while standing in front of a reverse-vending machine, dropping bottles and cans into a round slot one by one from several trash bags. “Usually when we come, we get about $17. But that was before we started saving them.”
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 state 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.
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 Control Commission, which aids distributors in administering program operations. The remaining third equates to almost $30 million in gross unredeemed refunds claimed by local and national distributors such as Pepsi, Pendleton Bottle Company and Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative participants.
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 attorney and Oregon Progressive Party spokesman, said at least some of that unclaimed cash should go into state coffers for education, health care or other public services.
More recently, distributors participating in the Oregon co-op are using the funds to build, operate and staff upscale stand-alone redemption sites like the Bottle Drop location in north Portland, which relieves nearby grocery stores of the responsibility. 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, about 30 miles northwest of Portland, the co-op’s slow building and shift away from some grocery retailers has been among her concerns for smaller communities like hers. But she and others respect that it is part of Oregon’s identity.
“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 someplace, everybody wins,” she said.