Ten cents may not sound like much, but for people who are diligent about returning cans and bottles, deposits can quickly add up to more than pocket change.
It was adding up for the Agape House on Tuesday, as a steady stream of people stopped by the Hermiston BottleDrop with specially marked blue bags of cans and bottles to donate to the nonprofit. BottleDrop Give, a program of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, had pledged to match up to $1,000 in deposits collected that afternoon, and Agape House director Dave Hughes said Wednesday that he didn’t have a final number but it looked like the fundraiser had raked in close to $2,000 worth of deposits (that’s 20,000 cans) to go toward backpacks of food sent home with needy schoolchildren on weekends.
“They couldn’t keep up,” Hughes said. “I’m so excited.”
Oregon’s famous Bottle Bill, which set up the country’s first beverage recycling deposit system in 1971, helped the OBRC redeem 1.3 billion containers in 2017 alone, according to Peter Spendlow of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. An increase from 5 cent deposits to 10 cents in April 2017 has helped increase redemption numbers. Spendlow said in an email that the redemption rate as reported by the ORBC was 59 percent in January through March of 2017 but was at 82 percent in April through December.
He said there was “probably some hoarding of containers” during the first part of the year, “But any way you look at it, there was a big jump in redemptions resulting in an increase of 231 million containers redeemed between 2016 and 2017.”
The 1.3 billion containers redeemed in 2017 equals about 314 cans and bottles returned for each of Oregon’s 4.14 million residents. The OBRC estimated Oregonians left $25 million on the table in deposits on unreturned cans and bottles that year.
Cherilyn Bertges, the BottleDrop Give program manager, confirmed that redemption numbers had jumped since the deposit increase, and also pointed out that in January the system also expanded to include almost all types of beverage containers, including sports drinks, fruit juice and tea.
“Between those two factors, we’re up 50 to 60 percent,” Bertges said of the cooperative’s recycling volume.
She said partnering on fundraisers like the one for Agape House is a “great way to capture those containers out there” because it gives people an extra incentive.
When a BottleDrop center opens in an area, she said, return rates tend to increase roughly 20 percent. The centers offer a one-stop shop of machines, with staff on hand and a system that allows people to add deposits to an account instead of collecting change. As part of BottleDrop Give, customers can pick up bags labeled with their favorite nonprofit and drop those off as donations as well.
On Wednesday morning Izabella Garcia, 18, was one of the people standing in line with a cart holding a few bags of cans and bottles. She said she and her 13-year-old brother have a BottleDrop account and use it frequently to build up pocket money with containers they bring from home or that her brother picked up while he was walking around town. She said the BottleDrop center was much preferable to the old days of taking them to a local grocery store.
“I think it’s a lot easier,” she said. “You can put money on an account.”
Tena Tickal, who was feeding cans through a machine, said she brings in her containers once every few months and uses the money to buy a new toy for her daughter.
“I like this (the center) a lot better,” she said. “The other machines would always break down and you would have to wait and wait and wait.”
She said that if Oregon didn’t have a deposit system it would be too easy to throw cans and bottles away instead of making the effort to recycle them.
“They would probably end up in the dang landfill,” she said.
How the system works
Enforcement of Oregon’s Bottle Bill is overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, but the system is mostly privately run by beverage distributors. When a store gets a shipment of beverages, the store pays the deposit on the containers to the distributor. Then the customer who buys those beverages pays a deposit to the store. If the customer returns those containers to the store, the store pays the customer the deposit amount. The store then returns those empty containers to the beverage distributor, which reimburses the store for the deposits on those bottles. BottleDrop centers run by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative cut out the last two steps in the process by having customers return containers directly to the distributors and get reimbursed directly.
If a customer pays a deposit on containers that are then thrown away instead of returned, the beverage distributors get to keep the deposit. That has been a sticking point for critics of the five cent increase, who argued that the move — triggered automatically after two years in a row of return rates below 80 percent — would serve to line the pockets of the beverage industry. The OBRC argued that the “profits” actually help pay for the cost of picking up containers and sending them to be recycled.
The Bottle Bill only applies to cans and bottles purchased in Oregon. Bertges said that many beverage containers have a UPC code that will tell the reverse vending machines whether the container was purchased in Oregon, but some don’t. In those cases, staff do their best to keep out Washington containers. They don’t take Kirkland bottles at the Hermiston center, for example, because that’s Costco’s brand and the only nearby Costco is in Washington.
According to the OLCC’s website, it is legal for the BottleDrop to turn people away if they don’t have receipts.
“There is no requirement that a person has to be an Oregon resident to redeem containers, but a retailer or redemption center may refuse to accept any container if staff have reasonable grounds to believe the beverage was not purchased in Oregon,” the website states. “For some locations along the border with other states, staff may request receipts as proof that the beverages were purchased in Oregon.”
People may still leave those cans and bottles to be recycled but they will not be paid a deposit for them.
Bertges said containers returned for a deposit in Oregon are turned into a “really clean recycling product” in the United States, she said, despite restrictions from China that have slowed down other types of plastic recycling on the West Coast.
Spendlow confirmed the restrictions haven’t slowed down beverage container recycling in the state, because the bottles are clean and well-sorted compared to the type of plastics pulled out of curbside recycling.
“The stream of plastic bottles coming back under the bottle bill is a very clean, valuable stream, and so a consortium was formed to build a plant, called ORPET, in St. Helens, Oregon, to recycle those bottles, including the bottle caps,” he wrote.