Kicking the Can
In Iowa and nine other states that have container deposit laws, more than twice as many containers are recycled per capita than in states without them. Refusing to take bottles and cans has been a misdemeanor in since 1979, but retailers in Iowa are rarely held accountable.
Grocers statewide have asked legislators to to suspend the state's can and bottle redemption law until its requirements can be enforced on all retailers equally.
The Iowa Grocery Industry Association — representing local stores and chains like Hy-Vee, Fareway and Walmart — has accused Iowa's Dept. of Natural Resources of enforcing the bottle bill against its members and ignoring others like Menards, Home Depot, and Dollar General.
"Simply put, the DNR has sat on its hands to avoid its responsibilities under the Bottle Bill," IGIA attorneys wrote in a petition to the court.
Redemption laws keep containers out of landfills at better rates than curbside recycling, some recycling experts say. It's a common income source for disabled or unemployed Iowans, nonprofits and other groups. Retaining redemption policies can help revive spoiled waterways, make waste management more efficient and combat climate change.
However, Iowa's has among the lowest redemption fees in the country, and hasn't been updated in decades.
Grocers say it's expensive and unsanitary for minimal returns, and have advocated for the law to be amended.
In a year of economic turmoil amid COVID-19, complaints that retailers aren't adhering to Iowa’s Container Beverage Deposit Law are on the rise. Despite this, enforcement of the bottle bill is almost non-existent.
The only way a store can legally be exempt from redeeming cans and bottles is if it has an agreement with an approved redemption center to accept them instead, who would receive a 1-cent handling fee per container. The center also has to be open at least 20 hours a week and be located within a 10-minute drive of the store.
Retailers, who have opposed the law since its inception, have been using the pandemic as a reason to stop taking containers, according to the Iowa Recycling Association.
Roger Hornback, a former mechanic and maintenance worker in Ottumwa (pop. 24,545), struggles to find work and relies solely on container deposits. “I’ve got about six people who give me their cans, or I pick them up out in the street or in the country,” [Hornback] said. “They say I don’t qualify for disability, so for three years I slept in front of my pickup.”