PORTLAND — Oregon's first-in-the-nation bottle recycling program will now double the payout for used soda cans and glass bottles, and frugal residents have been stockpiling for months in anticipation.
With other recycling options now commonplace, this eco-trailblazing Pacific Northwest state is hoping to revamp the program with the increase from 5 to 10 cents for bottled and canned water, soda, beer and malt beverages — regardless what their labels say.
Oregon's 1971 Bottle Bill — groundbreaking for its era in combating litter — has been replicated in nine other states and Guam. Michigan is the only other with an across-the-board 10 cent-payout, although booze and other large bottles go for 10 cents in California and 15 cents in Maine and Vermont.
The Oregon system was a big hit in those initial years. But as curbside recycling and pickup services were brought on board two decades later — not to mention effects of inflation on the nickel's value — the rates at which people cashed in their bottles and cans gradually tumbled from 90 percent averages to under 70 percent of all bottle sales statewide in 2014 and 2015.
That decline triggered the new 10-cent rate — a provision added to the Bottle Bill in 2011 — that takes effect Saturday.
Grocery stores and stand-alone redemption centers are bracing for a bustling weekend. Even the state Capitol press pool in Salem has been buying cases of water bottles and stockpiling the empties to pay for a pizza party.
Ted Ferrioli, state Senate Republican leader from John Day, Oregon, says he has seen schools and community organizations use it for creative ways to raise money for youth camps or 4-H clubs.
"They put a horse trailer out with a sign on it and it fills up and then they take it in and cash it out," Ferrioli recalled with a chuckle.
Naysayers, meanwhile, criticize Oregon's system as bad policy at time when jobs and taxes are on the line to help close Oregon's looming $1.6 billion budgeting deficit. Oregon and Iowa's Bottle Bills are unique in that private industry, not government, operates the system and claims all unredeemed refunds.
State residents cashed in slightly more than 1 billion empties in 2015, roughly two-thirds of total sales statewide, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission's 2017 report to the Legislature. That left almost $30 million in gross unredeemed refunds claimed by local and national distributors such as Pepsi, Pendleton Bottle Company and Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative participants.
Some of those funds help industry operate the program that involves transporting recyclables to processing sites and reimbursing grocery stores, which don't make a profit but are still required to accept empty containers and refund consumers.
But critics like Dan Meek, a Portland attorney and Oregon Progressive Party spokesman, said at least some of that unclaimed cash should benefit state coffers for education, health care or other public services.
"This is how the programs work in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Connecticut," he said. "New York retains 80 percent of unclaimed refunds; Michigan retains 75 percent. Oregon currently retains 0 percent."
More recently, distributors participating in the Oregon co-op are using the funds to build, operate and staff upscale stand-alone redemption sites, which relieves nearby grocery stores of the responsibility. The process has been slow-going, however, with pushback from local communities and land-use issues, although the co-op is now retrofitting huge shipping containers as an alternative.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat from Scappoose, said the co-op's slow building and shift away from some grocery retailers has been among her concerns for smaller communities like hers. But, she and others respect that it's part of Oregon's identity.
"The Bottle Bill has been a beloved institution of Oregon," Johnson said. "The rationale was, we don't want this crap all over the roads and the beach, it's gross. And so if you give them money to take them back some place, everybody wins."