Oregon’s groundbreaking Bottle Bill turns 50 next week. Since then, other states followed Oregon’s lead and passed deposit and redemption programs for beverage containers. Oregon’s program has since been updated. Peter Spendelow is a solid waste analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Jules Bailey is the chief stewardship officer for the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. They join us with details on how the law is working now and some possible changes.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Geoff Norcross. Oregon’s Bottle Bill turns 50 this year. In 1971 Oregon became the first state in the nation to require refundable deposits on all beer and soft drink containers. It was a way to encourage us to return those bottles and get that deposit back rather than toss them into the trash or, worse, on the ground or in the water. Some in State Government believe the Bottle Bill should get an update for its 50th birthday. Here to talk specifics are Peter Spendelow, Solid Waste Analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Jules Bailey, Chief Stewardship Officer with the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, which is an industry-backed group. Peter, Jules, good to have you.
Jules Bailey: Thank you for having us.
Peter Spendelow: Yeah, thanks.
Geoff Norcross: Peter, let’s start with you. Let’s look back to 50 years ago, 1971. Can you talk about the environment and what went into the passing of this historic piece of legislation?
Peter Spendelow: Yes, if you actually go back a little earlier than that, go back to the ’50s and so on. Almost all beverages at that time were sold in refillable bottles. People were just used to taking their bottles back to the store because the bottlers wanted to get those bottles back so they could wash and refill them. But then you had one-way cans starting to come onto the market and the stuff back then was quite different. You can find an ad that was put out showing the convenience of the throwaway container with two guys sitting a rowboat fishing, tossing their beer cans into the water.
Spendelow: Yeah, just amazing stuff. So back in about 1968 I think it was, a citizen activist, Richard Chambers, was out on his morning stroll on the beach and just found tons and tons of beer bottles all over the place. And early that Sunday morning he went and called up Paul Hanneman, his legislator, hauled them down there to the beach to show them that, and that really was the seed that got the Bottle Bill going. Richard continued to harangue officials, pushed for this, and there was legislation proposed in ’69 to ban disposable beer bottles. It didn’t pass; it was close to passing, but didn’t quite pass. But then Governor Tom McCall took this on as his issue and pushed for this bill; Hanneman was the one who actually proposed it. And there’s a quote from Lee Johnson, who was the Secretary of State at the time, that when this bill was up before the Legislature in ’71, it was the bill with the most outside lobbying he’s ever seen for any legislation, that the interests of the bottlers and the canners and so on were just, their lobbyists were coming in trying to convince our legislators to vote against this. It might have actually gone the other way [but] they were resentful of the outside influence. And it passed in ’71 and was signed into law as of July 2nd of 1971, which is almost exactly 50 years from now.
Norcross: Yeah. It’s been through some changes since then. Can you hit the high ones?
Spendelow: Well, it remained unchanged for decades with just small changes, things like the six-pack rings had to be photo degradable and there were changes in how many containers you could take back to stores. But it wasn’t until 2007 -- recall earlier I mentioned Richard Chambers -- his daughter, Vicki Berger, a representative from the Salem area, introduced legislation to add water to the Bottle Bill and also to create what’s called the Bottle Bill Task Force. And that went into effect in 2009. Then the task force met and they came up with recommendations which were not adopted in 2009 but many of them were adopted in 2011. And that led to raising the deposit to 10 cents. I should say it’s raising the refund value because actually the law doesn’t require deposit; it just requires that the refund value be paid. It also led to the adding of almost all these other beverages, all the teas and sports drinks and juices. All beverages except for beer, wine, milk, and milk substitutes were added, effective as of 2018. And then there’ve been other changes with redemption centers coming into play and Jules can talk a lot more about that.
Norcross: Yeah, sure. Well, let’s bring it up to the current day. State auditors have released a report and they did this last November. It made a few suggestions. And could you just hit a couple of the suggestions that they’re proposing?
Spendelow: Well, they proposed a number of things, such as adding beer and wine to the Bottle Bill, trying to make it more transparent so that the consumers would have better information when they’re using, say like the green bag system, how many containers are counted and so on. They also made a proposal which is fairly controversial - I’m sure Jules will speak against it - about going after the unclaimed deposits, the deposits which people paid and then they went and recycled the containers curbside or they threw them away. And so they never redeemed them. Most states do that. They claim the deposit either for the general fund or for some specific purpose. Oregon and Iowa are two states that don’t do that. So, a number of those recommendations I mentioned before are really good ones that we think are good. This one, we don’t have a position on it, but it is something that the Secretary of State proposed and I know that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission thought it was a good idea, too.
Norcross: Okay. Well, Jules from the OBRC (Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative), what about that idea? Redirecting unclaimed deposits from your organization to the state.
Jules Bailey: Well, thanks for talking about this. One quick clarification; the recommendation was to add liquor and wine into the Bottle Bill. Beer is already in. So, if you’ve got a beer bottle at home, that is worth 10 cents when you bring it back. I think one of the things that is really important at this 50th anniversary juncture is recognizing how successful Oregon’s bottle deposit and return system is. In 2019, kind of our last normal year, we were at about 90% return in the OBRC System. Nine out of ten containers sold were coming back and being recycled into really high quality uses right here in Oregon in many cases. Every plastic bottle that’s returned in the state of Oregon gets turned into the raw material for new plastic bottles right in St. Helens, Oregon. And so having a system where it’s convenient, there is continuous innovation, that we’re constantly investing in creating new aspects of the system, like an app that you can track your deposits on or connection to your kid’s 529 college savings plan. That has made Oregon’s system the most successful system in the nation and one of the most successful in the world. And I think that’s something we should be really proud of. And so, when we look at fundamental changes to the system, I think we have to proceed from the concept of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. There are I think some more innovations that we can do. We can look at bringing in additional beverage containers and increasing access and convenience. But the fact is, other states, that claim unclaimed refunds and use them and spend them on government purposes, aren’t successful. And you’ve seen states like Connecticut that just last week passed a bill that actually starts to move unclaimed refunds away from government and to investing it in the infrastructure of recycling through their Bottle Bill system. They’ve made that move, in part, because their system wasn’t working. They were down around 40 some odd percent redemption rate. And Oregon’s is nearly double that. So, there’s a lot of people in Oregon who really rely on this system to work. There’s a lot of people who use it for everyday sustenance. There’s a lot of people who use it for saving for kids for college. There’s nonprofits that use it for fundraising. We’ve done $13 million in fundraising for nonprofits. And so before we make really dramatic changes to that system, we have to be really careful that we’re not breaking it because there’s so many people that rely on it.
Norcross: Peter Spendelow, how do you react to the characterization of these changes as possible dramatic changes?
Spendelow: Well, I think that would be dramatic changes and I think a lot of what Jules said makes a whole lot of sense. The Bottle Bill has been hugely successful. We’ve had a number of other states looking at Oregon as being a model and national legislation looking at the type of system we have here in Oregon as being a model. Having a single producer responsibility organization, which is essentially what Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative is, is I think a really good idea. And we’ve had a number of producer responsibility type of laws in Oregon that have been successful. We have another one, which is up before the Legislature to be voted on today, we’re hoping will pass that I have been working on for quite a few years. So yeah, I think it’s something where we want to have a group get together and discuss these ideas, push ideas around and try to come up with a consensus that we can take back to the Legislature in an upcoming session regarding possible changes to the Bottle Bill.
Norcross: That bill that you mentioned that could be voted on today, it introduces the concept of “extended producer responsibility”. Could you explain what that is?
Spendelow: Yes, well, in Oregon, we have a great recycling system, but the people who produce the packaging and the printed paper that we recycle have no role in our system. They can create whatever they want. They can have excess packaging, packaging that’s not recyclable, stuff that really inhibits recycling. Like if you put a polyvinyl chloride label on a PET bottle, it makes it so that bottle is almost impossible to recycle. But [the producers] don’t have any role in it. So what this bill does is it says the producers have responsibility in the system. They share responsibility with the public and with the others who have a role there. But it would really place the producers in a responsible position for making sure that the material that we put in our recycling bins gets properly recycled. So that it doesn’t get shipped over to a market in Asia where they can’t manage the contamination that’s in there. And some of that plastic that we ship over there might end up floating back in the ocean back to Oregon. So that’s what it’s about, is giving the producers some responsibility in the system, a shared responsibility, along with the responsibility that all of us have to have a good recycling operation in place.
Norcross: Jules Bailey, how do you feel about that concept?
Bailey: I think we should be really proud of what Oregon is doing in the steps that the Legislature could take here around extended producer responsibility. I mean, it really, in many ways, is an example of why our Bottle Bill has been so successful. Back in 1971, we didn’t know fancy words like “extended producer responsibility” or “deposit return systems”. But what that really means is that the companies that are manufacturing and distributing beverage containers for the marketplace are responsible for what they’re putting out into the marketplace and into the environment and responsible for the life cycle of that. And that’s essentially what we created in 1971 and what has evolved over time for beverage containers and has worked really well. And one of the great things about Oregon’s bottle deposit and return system is that there are no taxpayer dollars that go into it of any kind. It is entirely paid for by private industry. And so, to have nearly 2 billion containers every year redeemed and recycled, at no cost to a taxpayer and really just paid for by the beverage industry and people that choose not to participate in that system, is a really important milestone for how we think about materials in general and for other kinds of products. And I think what Peter and DEQ have done, in trying to think more broadly about how do we use that concept that we’ve proven in Oregon and expand it in other places, really shows that there’s a lot that we can build off of here. And other states are looking at it as well. For bottle deposits, we recently just debuted a demonstration of our system down in San Francisco as California looks to modify its system to copy what Oregon has done potentially.
Norcross: Jules, you mentioned a little while ago the high redemption rates that we have in Oregon. I don’t remember exactly what you said, but they’re not 100. What do we need to do to get to 100% redemption?
Bailey: That’s a good question. And to get to 100% redemption, there’s really kind of a functional limit on how high you can go. So if you think about it, Portland and Vancouver are essentially the same metro area and people move back and forth between the two cities. So if you live in Vancouver, but you work in Portland and you buy a six pack when you’re at work and take it home and you recycle it curbside in Vancouver, that’s lost to the system. And so there’s always going to be a little bit of leakage that way from it. There will always be containers that break and that don’t come back. So 90% or slightly higher is essentially every bottle back, functionally. It’s hard to get much higher than that. Nine out of ten bottles coming back is a really strong number because it means that, not only are we keeping those bottles out of rivers and streams and beaches and recycling it, but we’re also creating the raw material to be able to meet some of the recycled content laws and ideas that are out there to ensure that, when products are manufactured, they use a high percentage of recycled content. So our system provides the inputs into that and it really is that circular, closed loop economy. And we’re always looking for ways to increase the redemption rate [such as] providing extra convenience, re-engaging consumers in the bottle deposit system... If you’re listening to this and you don’t have a green bag account, you can sign up online and download the app. We’re gonna be debuting new features coming later this year that will allow you to use Venmo and Paypal to automatically send yourself the money from your account. You can get a 20% bonus on your money if you spend it for groceries in-store credit. You can give it to your kid’s school or invest in their college savings plan. So we’re trying to create a lot of different ways for people to easily claim their refund and to put it to good use and the more we do that, the higher the redemption rate is going to be.
Norcross: Peter, the last word is for you and it makes me think of the broader issue here and that is, recycling, not just of bottles and cans but of everything. And there are big questions here about what we can recycle, especially since China is not taking our recyclable materials at the level that they used to. I’m wondering what our experience with the Bottle Bill over the last 50 years might tell us about what we can recycle, what we can circulate and recirculate, beyond the bottles and cans?
Spendelow: Well, just speaking of the bottles and cans to begin with, one great advantage of the Bottle Bill, of course, is that it brings back material that is very clean, very pure. So, for instance, in your curbside bins, people might think that their drinking glasses might go in there, or the window glass might go in there, or even coffee cups might go in there, not understanding that we only want bottle and jar glass in a curbside bin. Whereas nobody thinks to put a coffee cup in a reverse vending machine. So the glass is really clean, the plastic’s really clean, the aluminum is really clean. But as far as how that extends to other things, we have had a problem. We used to be a state which recycled almost all of our material here in Oregon, or at least in Oregon and Washington. Because we had big newspaper mills that would use all that paper that we produced. But those mills have closed. We had one Oregon City that closed, we had one in Newberg that closed. There isn’t a newsprint mill in Oregon anymore. Then we began exporting our material overseas because the markets over there wanted that material. But we got sloppy, we ended up not sorting material very well. And they would get paper that had plastic in it, had other sorts of stuff in it that was not recyclable. And that led to serious problems with the paper mills sorting out the stuff they don’t want, leaving it out in the field somewhere. It might end up washing back into the ocean and washing back to the United States. And that’s why China shut down accepting our recyclables. And that’s why I think this new Senate bill, that hopefully will pass today, really will address that because it will make the producers and the processors responsible for making sure that anything that they pass out of their system is going to a responsible end market, one that will actually recycle material. And, if there’s some contamination in there, one that will properly deal with that contamination and won’t allow it to escape to the environment or get burned in an open field or something like that. So I think that’s really where we’re trying to go. We want to make recycling responsible. We wanted to provide environmental benefits. We only want to recycle the things that actually provide environmental benefits. We don’t want to just recycle for the sake of recycling. We want to recycle because it benefits us all, reduces greenhouse gases, reduces pollution, reduces the need to harvest new resources. Those are the positive things about recycling that I think we still need to work a lot on.
Norcross: Peter, Jules, thank you so much for your time.
Bailey: Thank you so much.
Spendelow: Thank you.
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