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Changes to Iowa bottle bill likely a ‘non-starter’ this session
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Changes to Iowa bottle bill likely a ‘non-starter’ this session

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DES MOINES — A district court judge has tossed Iowa grocers’ challenge of the Department of Natural Resources’ rule requiring retailers to redeem the nickel deposits on pop and beer containers.

At the same time, a Senate committee weighing proposed changes to the “bottle bill” enacted in the late 1970s to reduce roadside littering was told the issue is dead for this legislative session.

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association argued in Polk County District Court that the DNR did not have authority to require retailers to redeem deposit containers.

The trade group filed suit after the DNR rejected its petition to remove the convenience standard requiring retailers to sign an agreement with a DNR-approved redemption center that is no more than a 10-minute drive from their stores before they can refuse to redeem the beer and pop cans and bottles they sell.

Removing that standard would “essentially gut the consumer convenience standard,” according the Cleaner Iowa, which asked the court to uphold the DNR’s rule-making authority. Cleaner Iowa represents redeemers and recyclers.

Judge Jeanie Vaudt found the grocers’ request would directly harm consumers. The DNR had argued that consumers should have a voice in the matter, but no consumers were party to the grocers’ action.

The grocers were disappointed by the decision, according to Brad Epperly, who represents them at the Capitol.

The decision “demonstrate the DNR’s continued refusal to do its job,” he said. They group likely will file the petition for rule-making that the association said the DNR asked it to withdraw last year.

The DNR had no comment on the decision.

In her decision, Vaudt also wrote that such a significant change to the bottle bill would be best left to the Legislature.

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That appears unlikely in the current legislative session as lawmakers and players in the bottle bill debate aired their concerns and frustrations over the lack of a viable solution at the Capitol.

Members of a Senate Ways and Means subcommittee heard pros and cons of Senate File 470, a multipronged proposal that backers say is the closest thing to any idea that has hope of reaching the governor’s desk this session.

The bill would allow grocery stores and other retailers to opt out of state requirements to accept empty, nickel-deposit beverage containers they sell effective July 1, 2022, if an authorized redemption center is within 20 miles of the business.

The measure also would change the redemption process for cans and bottles and would have the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division oversee the redemption center reimbursements.

“Everyone is coming to us with different problems and saying the status quo is not working,” said subcommittee chair Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs.

Epperly said all the players seeking to hammer out a compromise have been in virtual meetings every day to find agreement and thought they had found that solution.

However, they were told by key House members the plan was “a non-starter.” He did not divulge details but told the Senate panel, “We’ll continue to work on this bill since what we agreed to is a dead letter in the House.”

Jess Mazour of the Sierra Club said the solution has been evasive because no one has included average Iowans — who “overwhelmingly love the bottle deposit law” — in the discussions.

Those Iowans, she said, favor having the law cover more containers, raising the per-container deposit from 5 cents to a dime, raising the handling fee a penny to 2 cents, and maintaining the convenience of returning empties to their place of purchase.

“We don’t want to see the bottle bill dismantled or changed in the way that’s being proposed,” she said. “We need to expand it and make it easier and convenient for citizens.”

Subcommittee members forwarded the bill to the full Senate Ways and Means Committee, where Dawson said senators who try to rework the language to give it “a fresh breath of life.”

“Iowans do like the bottle bill. But we have to be sympathetic to the infrastructure out there,” Dawson said. “Just because we like something doesn’t mean that we can pass an unfunded mandate onto all of these industries and turn around and say make it happen, when we know the current system is not sustainable and is collapsing.”

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