Major changes are underway, with more on the horizon for Oregon’s pioneering bottle deposit system.
Those changes -- the biggest since the Bottle Bill's adoption a generation ago -- have been slowly playing out as grocery stores close their return stations in favor of centralized off-site redemption centers.
And the state will soon determine if the deposit paid for each bottle and can of soda, water or beer will remain at a nickel or double to a dime.
Those changes are all about increasing the rate of empties -- and deposits -- that get returned.
For about 20 years after Oregon’s Bottle Bill passed, the statewide redemption rate stayed above 90 percent, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. This caused a substantial reduction of beverage containers in landfills, on roadsides and in waterways.
The Oregon Bottle Bill was first-of-its-kind legislation in the United States when it was passed in 1971. It's been lauded for helping to reduce litter and create an ethos of conservation and recycling.
The first is inflation. A nickel isn’t what it used to be. Back in the 1970s, two nickels could buy you a postage stamp, and a just few more could get you a loaf of bread. When Oregon’s Bottle Bill went into effect, the nickel deposit on a soda was a real incentive to return those empties that too often ended up littered on river banks or roadsides.
Then there’re the grocery store return centers. Most Oregonians are familiar with smell of can funk - the co-mingling of stale beer and rancid soda - that permeates the often dingy and sticky return areas.
On opening day at the Medford BottleDrop, Webb was shown around a clean, spacious storefront by Alisa Schifflett.
“These machines aren’t like the grocery store machines, they take all three types of material – glass plastic and aluminum,” Schifflett explained to Webb.
The two women fed bottles and cans into one of the dozen or so reverse vending machines lining the wall of the BottleDrop center.
When a BottleDrop center opens, participating grocery stores and other retailers can stop accepting returns – and leave all the mess and money handling to the redemption centers.
Greg Edwards shoves cans from handcart into the hole in the wall.
“You’re allowed to return more bottles. It just makes it easier for us to get rid of all of them at the same time,” he says.
These factors could be major obstacle for low-income Oregonians, including the homeless, who often rely on bottle returns for income. They’re often at the front lines of gathering bottles and cans that would otherwise be en route to the landfill or litter the roadsides.
Chris Clouart is Managing Director of the Bethlehem Inn, a shelter in Bend. His sense is that the BottleDrop in town isn’t terribly popular.
“I have talked to some folks who go on about the hassle of getting to the one redemption center we have in town,” he said in an email.
For casual bottle returners, those who return what they buy on a regular basis, not being able to cash in while grocery shopping is not exactly convenient.
But will these centers turn Oregon’s plummeting return rate around? It’s too soon to tell, said the OBRC's Cherilyn Bertges.
“Each center goes through phases. It goes through an initial phase where it’s open and it’s kind of like this new exciting thing. Then it drops off, and then more people find out about it and it comes back up,” she said.
Bertges says more time is needed before OBRC can determine if a specific location is a success. Some of the earliest BottleDrops are doing well, pulling in more returns than the surrounding grocery stores did before they opened.
In addition, the statewide return rate has leveled off. It’s been hovering in the low 70s since the redemption centers started opening a few years back. More data is needed before this can be called a trend.
“Even with the popularity of our redemption centers… it may be something that’s necessary for the redemption rate to go up,” says Burtges. “We think it’s likely.”
The experiences of other states suggest raising the bottle deposit to a dime will increase the redemption rate well above 80 percent. Not everyone is convinced though, Suzanne Johannsen included.
Johannsen says even if the bottle deposit goes up in 2017, people are busy. She argues the most important thing is keeping recycling top-of-mind.
“Just plain old educating people, reminding people is going to be more effective at getting the rate up,” she said.