Empty cans

Can and bottle redemption options could be more limited for residents starting in July.

There might be a significant reduction in the number of places that redeem cans and bottles in Iowa when changes to the state’s bottle bill go into effect next month. The redemption businesses that remain are worried about a sudden influx of containers similar to what they experienced after the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Some fear it will sour Iowans’ attitudes about recycling the containers.

The Sierra Club of Iowa estimates that about 1,700 businesses that sell the beverages are required to take back those containers right now, but changes to the law that were signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds last week and will go into effect July 1 will exempt most of those businesses that prepare ready-to-eat food. That includes a large number of grocery stores and those within a certain distance of a redemption center.

There are 121 active redemption centers in the state, according to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources list, but the Sierra Club and the owner of the state’s largest redemption business estimate the true number is closer to 60 because many of the centers listed by the DNR have closed.

That’s fewer than the number of counties in Iowa. The redemption centers are poised to see a spike in the number of beverage containers they receive. In January, the amount of money they are paid by beverage distributors to redeem the containers will triple from one to three cents per bottle or can.

That would appear to be a boon for redemption center profits, but there are other concerns. 

“I’m a little apprehensive about it,” said Troy Willard, owner of Can Shed redemption centers in five eastern Iowa cities and the largest such business in the state. “I think the handling fee increase was long overdue, and I do think it will create some new businesses, but I’m a little bothered by the timing of it all. I think there should have been a transition period.”

Can and bottle redemptions were halted for months at the beginning of the pandemic, and when they resumed there were huge backlogs of containers and long lines of people attempting to redeem them, Willard said. He worries about what will happen if the number of places accepting the containers plummets overnight.

“The more detrimental result is that people will give up on it and start throwing them away,” he said.

It’s unclear how many Hy-Vee stores will stop accepting the containers.

“We are currently evaluating the guidelines set in the new bottle law and determining how to proceed in the best interest of our customers, while taking into consideration communities that may not have a convenient redemption facility nearby,” the company said in a written statement it provided to Iowa Capital Dispatch. “Every community is slightly different, and we will be reviewing what’s best for each area and store location.”

Fareway Stores didn’t resume can and bottle redemption after the start of the pandemic.

Jessica Carpenter, who owns Lake View Redemption Center and Liquor Store in rural western Iowa, said the new changes will be beneficial to her business but will likely result in people driving farther to redeem their beverage containers. One of her current customers lives about 40 miles away, she said.

Carpenter said a grocery store in Ida Grove, about 20 miles west of Lake View, is likely to stop redeeming containers, and the new law will imperil her agreement with another nearby grocery store to retrieve and sort the containers it collects from customers.

“I’m going to lose that contract, but all those people are going to come to me anyway,” she said.

The tripling of the handling fees means Carpenter will be able to pay her employees more money. Her going rate has been $10 per hour, which makes it difficult for her to retain workers. When the business is fully staffed, she has eight employees.

Carpenter helped her parents open the business in 2005 and took ownership of it about three years ago. They almost closed the redemption center several times because the handling fee wasn’t sufficient. They started selling liquor to keep it afloat, she said.

She hopes to expand the size of her building with the new revenue.

Willard, the eastern Iowa redemption center owner, said he plans to expand as well. His current locations are in Cedar Rapids, Hiawatha, Iowa City, Manchester and Marion. He previously planned to expand into North Liberty and Coralville and now sees more opportunities in smaller cities in the area.

The reduced number of places to redeem cans and bottles is likely to propel new technologies to make the redemptions more convenient for residents, he said. That might include drop sites where people leave bags of containers that are tagged in some way to connect them to the people, and the redemption centers later count the containers and compensate the customers.

“That has lots of promise,” Willard said. “I think that might play a big role in the transition from the old way to the new way, but that’s going to take time.”

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