Putting the Dime on Oregon’s Bottle Recyclers

Their collection trucks are still emblazoned with the web address they popularized with an advertising campaign, even though the redemption rate doubled a year ago this week. How well do you “know your nickel?”

Visiting www.knowyournickel.org will land you at Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative’s website. (Just to save you the trouble, www.knowyourdime.org will get you to the same place.) Who is the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative?

It’s a story worth knowing, because those are your nickels-cum-dimes being collected whenever you buy a beverage. I can offer you a brief rundown, and yes — I’ll be glad to add my two cents.

Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative was incorporated in 1987, but didn’t do anything notable until it consolidated Container Recovery, Inc. and Beverage Recyclers of Oregon in 2009. It was ready to go when Oregon expanded its first-asterisk-in-the-nation Bottle Bill.

(Vermont had the nation’s first “bottle bill” in 1953, but repealed it in 1957. British Columbia was first to enact a beverage recycling deposit system, one year before Oregon passed its Bottle Bill in 1971.)

Oregon’s large grocers and beverage distributors have used OBRC as their front man to lobby for changes to how Oregonians recycle. They promised everybody something they wanted. It was less about beverage, more about leverage.

Lawmakers in Salem were assured that more containers would be recycled, with no cost to the government. The public was promised easier, more efficient bottle returns. Grocers could look forward to not mixing bottle sales with bottle redemptions.

You could have asked anyone in the grocery business what part of their job they liked the least. Nobody wanted to deal with the messy and sometimes dangerous work of collecting and crushing glass so it could be efficiently hauled away to make more glass.

Automated systems were constantly getting jammed. Bins of heavy glass had to be regularly swapped out. The grocery industry prides itself in optimization and cleanliness. Redeeming bottles and cans is neither.

Lobbyists like one-stop shopping as much as supermarket customers, and that’s what they got in 2007, when the legislature mandated a top-to-bottom review of Oregon’s container redemption system.

In 2009, bottled water was added to the redemption system. In 2011, the legislature passed another update which required the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to double the deposit amount if the redemption rate fell below 80 percent for two consecutive years.

That’s exactly what happened in 2016, when OLCC announced the deposit would double to a dime, beginning April 1, 2017. Why did the redemption rate fall below the acceptable level? One factor that must have contributed was that third promise made by the OBRC — the one they made to the grocers.

They began building BottleDrop™ Redemption Centers in 2014. Yes, they are clean and well lit — at least when they first open, as another site did in Springfield this week. Yes, they are modern and somewhat automated. But no, they are not as convenient as redeeming your bottles at the store where you bought them.

Supermarket chains are allowed to “pay their way out” of their state-mandated redemption responsibility. That’s not a viable option for corner stores, so many of them are forced to accept bottles brought to them or prey on the public’s ignorance about what is required by whom.

But this is all about knowing your nickel, er, dime, right? So where does the dime go after you pay the deposit at the store? It goes to the OBRC, which is effectively privately owned by beverage distributors. The dime comes back to you if you return that bottle, but what if you don’t? In large states like California and New York, that money is added to the state treasury, but not in Oregon.

The dime stays with the OBRC, to fund bottle collection and more BottleDrop™ Redemption Centers. The OBRC and its members benefit when redemption rates decline. “The beauty … is it relies on the people who don’t participate to fund it,” OBRC lobbyist Paul Romain bragged to Willamette Week last year.

Now you know.

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