In its editorial, “BottleDrop a good concept, poorly executed,” the Mail Tribune brings up important issues, but draws the wrong conclusions. The Medford experience shows that the BottleDrop concept is executed well. It’s executed so well, in fact, that people are traveling much farther than anticipated to take advantage of the improvements that we’ve made to the bottle deposit and return system.
Every day, more Oregonians are BottleDropping their containers and overwhelmingly, they prefer the experience over the old system. Customers especially like our “green bag” program, which allows them to simply drop off a bag of containers and have the money deposited to their BottleDrop account. No lines, no going inside, no sorting containers. In fact, 240,000 Oregon households have a BottleDrop account, with more signing up every day.
Due to the popularity of our concept, the Medford BottleDrop processes about 55 million containers a year. That’s well over the 35 million containers that would otherwise be taken back to the nearby grocery stores that the Medford BottleDrop was built to serve. We’ve worked to stretch the capacity of this location to meet the growing demand, but there remain peak times when customers wait in line to use one of the self-serve machines. The green bag program remains an easy drop-and-go option. In response to growing volume, we’re extending our hours to 7am-7pm starting July 15th, and we have added employees.
The Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC) operates 23 BottleDrops around Oregon, with more on the way. Statewide, demand for BottleDrops is very high and we’ve been focusing on communities that don’t have a BottleDrop yet, like Corvallis and Newport. Each location is a major effort — the economy is hot and finding property is challenging. We must also work through the patchwork of local regulations and engage with the local community. As a not-for-profit cooperative, we don’t have unlimited resources and we don’t get, or want, any taxpayer money. OBRC is already investigating a second Medford location, but it can’t happen overnight.
While BottleDrop is a model that works well, it is not immune to the rising homelessness and drug use rates which are affecting many businesses in Oregon. Starbucks, for example, has been going through a review of its restroom policy in response to customer complaints. Unlike other businesses, however, BottleDrop provides a service that is particularly important to members of our community that are most in need. Many people rely on BottleDrop to reclaim their deposits to cover necessities like food and shelter. We turn people away when they cause a disturbance and we have a trespass policy that we enforce when people are dangerous or disruptive. However, many of the complaints we hear are simply about people experiencing poverty or homelessness, and aren’t creating an active problem. They are our customers, too, and we are committed to serving anyone with valid containers to return. In some sense, we are akin to public libraries, which also struggle to create a welcoming space for everyone.
We are very supportive of ways to reduce poverty, homelessness, and addiction, and we work regularly to donate deposits to homeless shelters and other organizations. We also hire people directly out of homelessness, helping them build job skills and a resume. We want to be part of the solution, and we feel the situation is better where we’re present, than where we’re not. The problems of poverty, homelessness and drug abuse are not created by BottleDrop, and without us, people experiencing those problems would be returning containers at grocery stores, which are less equipped to manage the situation than we are.
Finally, BottleDrop is committed to being a good neighbor. We were made aware of the concerns around the Medford BottleDrop when a few businesses approached the City Council. Those businesses chose not to contact us directly to inform us of their concerns. We remain open to hearing from them directly and we are taking extra steps to make sure that we are operating responsibly and that our property is clean, safe, and welcoming for all our customers.
The way to solve the issues the Mail Tribune brings up is not more legislative regulation of the bottle deposit and return system or a change in the BottleDrop concept. Rather, while we pursue a second location in Medford, we suggest the legislature and local government focus squarely on reducing poverty, attacking the opioid epidemic and ending homelessness. BottleDrop stands ready to help in any way we can, and we look forward to continuing to provide an important service for our customers.
Joel Schoening is the community relations manager for the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative.