Barely a week after some Iowa grocery stores said they won’t take back cans and bottles any more, Iowa’s largest grocery chain is considering a similar move. Managers at a Waterloo Hy-Vee store say they may quit redeeming containers for the nickle deposit under Iowa’s 25-year-old bottle law, and Hy-Vee’s Ruth Mitchell says it’s under consideration. Iowa law allows retailers to designate a redemption center to take the cans and bottle they’ve sold, and now that Fareway grocery stores have decided to do that, and refuse to take back cans at the stores, she says more of the Hy-Vee stores will look at it too. Mitchell says some stores don’t have a handy redemption center to send their business to, but managers would like to halt the service, which is costly in man-hours for them. Billions of cans and bottle are sold every year in Iowa, Mitchell says, and grocery stores “really bear the brunt of the redemption burden in the state.” She says at some of the chain’s big stores, they take in more than 14-thousand cans and bottles every day. Mitchell says distributors pay stores a one-cent handling fee, which does not cover their cost. But she says the main concern is sanitation. That’s the argument the grocery retailers brought up two years in calling for repeal of the bottle law. One who doesn’t buy it is the manager of an eastern Iowa business that handles the containers. Cher Rogers runs Mount Pleasant Can and Bottle Redemption Center. Rogers says “It’s a dirty stinky job but so is runnin’ a cattle farm,” and while she wouldn’t say handling cans makes a store as dirty as a farm, she cites other sanitation questions in a store filled with merchandise trucked in from around the world. Rogers says cost IS the main point for handlers of returned containers. Her center can take in 25 to 30-thousand cans on a good summer day. She says the redemption center has to pay rent, utilities, gas for the truck, paychecks and insurance, which she says is “out of this world.” It’s a struggle, she says, and “Nobody’s gettin’ rich.” A quarter-century ago when Iowa passed the bottle bill, only beer and soda containers were included, but Rogers says the fee for their redemption remains a penny a can even though many new products and containers have been added to those for which a deposit is charged. Rogers says “I guarantee it, if they raised it to two cents instead of a penny, every grocery store would sort their cans gladly.” Rogers says she can’t afford to provide her employees with health insurance. Rogers points out the cost of gas goes up every year, and so does the grocery bill, rent and lights, but “this penny thing has stayed the same way for 25 years.” Jeff Geerts of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says the goal of Iowa’s five-cent container fee is to clean up the environment, and the bottle bill covers all alcoholic and carbonated beverages. State law requires grocers take back the same kind, size and brand of beverage containers they sell, with one exeption — they can agree with a local redemption center that it’ll take the containers on their behalf. There has to be a center that’s not too far for their customers to go, and the DNR has to look over their joint application to hand off the job, and approve that request. Geertz confirms the bottle bill contains a one-penny fee for handling redeemed empties. It’s been that one-cent for 25 years and costs have risen while the penny hasn’t, he acknowledges — but changing it would require legislative action on an agreement to do it. One of the great things about the bottle bill is how it’s a model for stewardship, and Geertz says up to now manufacturers, distributors, retailers, consumers and redemption centers have worked to make it successful. A study by UNI’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research early this year found more than 90-percent of Iowans support the state’s bottle bill. According to the D-N-R and Iowa Grocery Industry Association there are 150 redemption centers in the state and around 700 supermarkets.
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