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As More Bottle Redemption Centers Go On-Line In Oregon, Bottle Deposit Increase “Likely”

Jes Burns

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. So when Oregon’s Bottle Bill went into effect in 1972, the nickel deposit on a soda made people take notice -- and return empties that were a large part of Oregon’s litter problem.

Not so today. But changes are underway to get Oregon’s plummeting bottle return rate back to early levels. Redemption centers continue to pop up.

And Oregonians will likely see the deposit raised to a dime sooner rather than later.

For about 20 years after Oregon’s Bottle Bill passed, the return rate was above 90 percent, triggering a substantial reduction of beverage containers in landfills, in waterways and on roadsides.

But then there was a shift, and by the mid 2000s…

Suzanne Johannsen: “The return rates has been going down from the Bottle Bill for a while.”

Suzanne Johannsen is the former head of a recycling non-profit in Bend.

Suzanne Johannsen: “And the frustration level of consumers was going up.”

In 2007, Johannsen was tapped to serve on a statewide task force charged with trying to turn the trend around. They were faced with a couple problems.

The bottle deposit today would need to be about 30 cents to keep up with inflation.

Then there’s that frustration with grocery store return centers. Most Oregonians are familiar with smell of can funk that permeates the often dingy return areas. And it isn’t just the smell...

Cynda Webb: “Usually the machines were clogged or full and you had to call for somebody to come help, which would usually take several minutes. It was not a pleasant experience.”

Cynda Webb of Medford was looking for a better way to trade back her empties for cash. The answer she found was the number one recommendation of Johannsen’s task force – a redemption center.

On opening day at the Medford BottleDrop, Webb is being shown around a clean, spacious storefront by Alisa Schifflett.

Alisa Schifflett: “…aren’t like the grocery store machines, they take all three types of material – glass plastic and aluminum.”

So far 10 BottleDrops have opened for business in Oregon. When one of these centers opens, grocery stores and other retailers in the area can stop accepting bottles and cans – and leave all the mess and money handling to the redemption centers.

Alisa Schifflett: “And your total is $7.30. You just finish and get cash.”

Greg Edwards: “It’s a little more flexible.”

Greg Edwards shoves cans from a plastic cart into one of the dozen or so reverse vending machines that line the wall.

Greg Edwards: “You’re allowed to return more bottles. It just makes it easier for us to get rid of all of ‘em at the same time.”

Bottle centers are good for retailers, and the early-adopters who found the Medford BottleDrop.

But the industrial settings of many of these centers are making it difficult to access without a car. And for the casual bottle returner, not being able to cash in while grocery shopping is not exactly convenient.

Still, a co-op set up by the beverage and grocery industries is moving to open about 35 more BottleDrops over the next nine years - Eugene, Springfield and Klamath Falls are next in the queue.

Question is, will these centers turn Oregon’s plummeting return rate around? It’s too soon to tell, says the co-op’s Cherilyn Bertges.

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. And so a center really needs to be open for a while to get a good feeling for how it’s doing.”

Bertges says some of the earliest BottleDrops are doing well, pulling in more returns than the surrounding grocery stores ever did. And the statewide return rate has leveled off to about 70 percent since the centers started opening a few years back.

But that’s not good enough to keep the nickel-per container deposit in place. If statewide redemptions are below 80 percent for two years running, then deposits will increase to a dime. Again Bertges:

Cherilyn Bertges: “Even with the popularity of our redemption centers… it may be something that’s necessary for the redemption rate to go up. We think it’s likely.”

The earliest the deposit can increase is 2017 - and Oregonians are expected to return empties with with renewed vigor.

Couple this with the expansion of the bottle bill in 2018 to cover juice, coffee, tea and sports drinks, and the number of beverage containers going into the landfill in Oregon will undoubtedly take a tumble.

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