Bottle Returns Can Help Our Homeless

Oregon is losing its love for bottle returns, but Lane County can lead the way to something better. Collecting cans for extra money has supported the homeless for decades. Isn’t it time we formalized that arrangement, saving ourselves some inconvenience along the way?

Oregon’s Bottle Bill led the nation in 1971, charging a nickel for every recyclable, then paying it back when returned. Oregonians quickly adopted the logic: “You can buy this soda, but you’re only renting its container.”

Nine other states have followed our lead. Almost every state now promotes recycling, whether they charge a deposit or not. Some states now have higher recycling rates than Oregon. In fact, Oregon’s redemption rate has fallen in the last year to a paltry 68 percent. I think I know why.

The Oregon Grocers Association has long sought to relieve its members of the task of collecting bottles and cans. Paying back those nickels was never cost-effective. Automation was the quick fix, but grocery store staff still had to service the machines when bins filled or chutes jammed.

In 2011, the Oregon Legislature approved regional redemption centers. A dozen BootleDrop locations have opened across the state, administered by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. Only one has opened so far in Lane County (in Eugene on West Broadway, near Garfield Street), but more are on the way.

BottleDrop openings allow member grocers within 3.5 miles to limit the returns they accept at their stores. Many have simply closed their redemption rooms completely, hoping their customers will collect their nickels elsewhere.

Redeeming bottle deposits was never an enjoyable experience, but BottleDrop has made it much worse. Lines are long, giving you plenty of time to contemplate how else you could be spending your time. They do offer a quick drop service, but there’s a fee per bag, you can’t verify the results, and it’s still an extra stop.

Ask any dry cleaner how Americans respond when they have to make just one more stop when they’re out running errands. They find other ways.

If you get up very early on trash pick-up day, you can see for yourself what that other way looks like. Down-and-out entrepreneurs troll the streets, often with flashlights and makeshift carts, looking for nickel-worthy containers. Residents are happy to be relieved of the responsibility, especially when looking the other way points toward their pillow.

If your neighborhood hasn’t yet attracted these intrepid collectors, it won’t be long. Deposits will double to a dime in 2017 and the program will expand significantly to cover almost all bottles in 2018. This informal system seems to work better for many people than the one built by the state’s leaders. They’re not missing the spare change that redeeming them represent.

We can build out that system to help our most vulnerable residents, reclaiming our position as civic innovators.

Remember those barn-red newspaper recycling boxes that used to be on every street corner, supporting the Eugene Mission? Redemption rates for newsprint plummeted, so the Mission abandoned the program a few years ago, but we can recycle their blueprint for do-goodery.

Bottles and cans are much more valuable than used newspapers, so unattended drop spots won’t work. So how about this? Dari-Mart has nearly 50 locations, stretching north, south and east of its Junction City headquarters. They’d love to offer you a new reason to come inside one of their corner markets, if only out of neighborliness.

If each store became a secure drop site for donated bottles and cans, I’m sure St. Vincent dePaul or another social service agency could use the deposits to subsidize their programs for the homeless. Eugene and other cities could find ways to promote and support the effort.

Everybody wins in this scenario. Dari-Mart gets a steady stream of people stopping in. Those who serve the area’s homeless get an additional funding source. And you don’t have to stand in line to get your nickels back.

It’s not exactly what the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative and state legislators had in mind. It’s better.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs