After years of holding out hope that the Iowa Legislature would approve an additional penny per can and bottle, the Denison Redemption Center will close on February 28.
It will become one of hundreds of such centers in Iowa that have shuttered their doors.
At one time, 300 can and bottle redemption centers were operating in Iowa. Now that number is down to about 100, said Bill Blum, program planner with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The primary reason for the decline that Blum points to is the amount set by law that distributors pay - one cent per can and bottle. It has remained the same since the bottle bill was implemented in 1979.
“Basically we’ve been running on a month-to-month and year-to-year basis the last two to three years, hoping that a bottle bill would make it through the legislature,” said Clay Adams, executive director of WESCO Industries, which operate Denison Redemption Center.
“I think there’s been one (bottle bill) almost every year. Each year it’s failed.”
Again this year, a bottle bill was introduced in the Iowa Senate by Sen. Mark Segebart, a Republican from Vail and member of the Natural Resources and Environment subcommittee.
The bill proposes to double the amount beverage distributors pay – giving redemption centers two cents for every can and bottle they process.
Segebart has introduced bottle bills in the past but the bills have stalled in the sessions.
Even if the bill passes this year, Adams said it won’t be enough if all it does is increase the redemption rate to two cents.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is the volume of nonredeemable water, sports drink and iced tea bottles that people mix in with the pop cans and bottles they bring to redemption centers.
“Even if it (this year’s bill) does go through, it’s kind too little, too late,” said Adams. “Many, many redemption centers have closed throughout the state.”
As redemption centers have closed, the volume at Denison Redemption Center has increase, but at only one cent per container, the principle of volume does not pay.
“We’re in the unique position that the more volume we have, the more money we lose,” said Adams. “It was a losing proposition for quite some time before we went to a month-to-month and year-to-year basis.”
The reason Denison Redemption has continued on that basis is to serve the community and also to offer in-house training for the people with disabilities that WESCO serves.
Now, though, the direction for facilities like WESCO is to integrate their clients into the community, and the need for in-house training has decreased.
Adams said that put the purpose of the redemption center squarely as a service to the community.
“We are happy to do that (community service) but it reached a point where you just cannot continue to lose money because it begins to affect our ability to serve people,” he said.
Denison Redemption Center has changed through the years to make its operation more efficient. Adams said the most recent and most effective upgrade was to purchase two machines and put them together to automatically count and help to more effectively sort containers.
The majority of the money for the machines was in the form of a grant from the Crawford County Community Foundation.
After February 28, the WESCO board wants to hang onto the machines for a short period of time, Adams said, in the off chance that something would pass through the legislature which would make sense for the redemption center to start up again.
If that doesn’t happen, Adams said WESCO would try to sell the equipment. When and if it does, WESCO would return the grant money to the foundation so it can be passed on to some other non-profit organization.
Adams said if anyone would like to purchase the equipment and make a go of operating a redemption center, WESCO would certainly be supportive.
“Even with the machines, it boils down to the redemption rate, and it’s been that way since 1979,” he said. “For that to stay static for that many years, it’s reached a point where it is no longer viable.”
Currently, Denison Reception takes in 25,000 to 35,000 beverage containers a day.
Denison Redemption reached a peak of 12 million containers in 2016. Now it receives between eight and 10 million containers a year, a figure that includes the nonredeemable containers.
After Denison Redemption takes in its final cans and bottles on February 28, it will stay open internally for probably another month to process the beverage containers that remain and to finish up other business, said Adams.
The people working for Denison Redemption will have jobs in other capacities with WESCO. Adams said the center employs two people and is also staffed by some clients from WESCO’s Stepping Stones facility located in Vail. For the workers from Stepping Stones, WESCO will repurpose their day program to focus on volunteering within the community.
Blum said the bottle bill is premised on the idea of people taking their empties back where they bought them. He added that the redemptions centers are really only a supplement to the overall system.
He said if redemption centers go out of business, people have the legal right to take their empties back to the stores where the beverages were purchased.
“We get calls all the time from places where redemption centers go out of business, and I give them advice that the statute, Iowa Code, Chapter 455 C, says that when stores illegal refuse to redeem their empties, they are committing a simple misdemeanor with a $65 fine,” Blum said.
Blum also pointed out that the law says it should be convenient for people to return their empties.
“We’ve determined that anything more than a 10-minute drive by online map service is just really at the edge of convenience so anything over that is not convenient at all,” he said.
An example Blum gave was a business in Manly that wanted to be an approved redemption center for a store in Mason City; that city had lost its redemption center in the last year. But the business in Manly was 13 to 18 minutes away from Mason City, and its application had to be denied.
“Again, nobody should have to drive very far at all because their local store that sell these beverages - it’s their legal obligation to redeem the empties,” he said.