Bottle redemption centers a bad idea

Drive other parts of the country and you see them everywhere: cans and bottles littering the side of the road. That hasn't been common in Oregon for years.

The state became the first in the nation in 1971 to enact a bottle-return law, and now Oregonians return 1.2 billion deposit containers annually — 83 percent of what we buy — for recycling.

The law is more effective here than anywhere in the United States except Michigan, says the national Container Recycling Institute.

The big difference between Oregon and Michigan and most of the other states with bottle bills?

Two words: "redemption centers."

Oregon's law already allows for the centers, buildings where consumers can recycle the contents of their big black garbage bags full of empties. But probably because the law also requires retailers to take back as many as 144 cans or bottles from everyone daily, no redemption centers ever have been built.

That may be about to change.

The 2007 Legislature revised the bottle bill so it will include water bottles at the beginning of the year, and it also appointed a task force to consider other changes: expanding the law to include new kinds of containers, increasing the cost of the 5-cent deposit and letting the state's largest grocery stores off the hook on returns.

Grocers never have liked that job: serving as the place where customers land with big, sticky loads of beer and soda containers, staffing the cantankerous "reverse vending" machines, dealing with the mess everyone leaves behind.

Who would? But here's our concern about letting them out of their end of the bargain and allowing industry to build the freestanding redemption centers instead: Oregon will lose.

It's not only the statistics that suggest that but the logic. If you can dump your cans and bottles where you shop, you're more likely to do it than if you have to drive to another deposit site.

Advocates of the redemption-center approach say the buildings would sit in convenient retail areas, but there wouldn't be many of them. When they're all built, the Portland area would have 10, for example. Eugene would have three.

Industry, which would pay for the centers using the $10 million it receives annually in unredeemed container deposits, would have to hire staff to run the centers. Early estimates suggest the operations would cost $16 million a year, raising the question of whether deposit rates would have to rise to cover the bill.

Oregon's system, while admittedly messy for all involved, already operates well for everyone but grocers.

The legislative task force ought to look for better ways to address their issues. But it shouldn't allow industry to ruin one of the most successful recycling efforts in the country.

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