June 29, 2009

The Oregonian

Four grocers want to try joint bottle return center in Gresham

Faith Cathcart/The Oregonian
Richard Dove recycles his bottles at the Gresham Fred Meyer after finding one machine broken and another at full capacity. Dove, who redeems containers about once a month, says he likes the idea of a more full-service redemption center: "I think it's a great idea," he says. "These things would be better cared for."

For years, Oregon's big grocers have wanted to offload the messy collection of bottles and cans returned under the state's storied bottle bill.

Now, the industry is taking its first crack at a new system: Under the proposal, four big grocery stores in Gresham would bar returns and bump them to a separate, industry-financed "redemption center" in a former auto dealership nearby.

For years, Oregon's big grocers have wanted to offload the messy collection of bottles and cans returned under the state's storied bottle bill.

Now, the industry is taking its first crack at a new system: Under the proposal, four big grocery stores in Gresham would bar returns and bump them to a separate, industry-financed "redemption center" in a former auto dealership nearby.

The industry says the redemption center would come with staff and a higher limit on daily returns per recycler, adding speed and convenience for the bottle bill's nickel-deposit returns.

Among other changes, the center would give recyclers the option to drop off bags of bottles and cans for counting by staff and get credit in an account, instead of stuffing them one by one into machines.

"We think that's the difference between these things being a flop in consumers' eyes and being something that's viewed as really adding value," said John Andersen, president of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. The cooperative, which includes retailers and distributors, wants to open the center this summer.

But recycling advocates worry the center, combined with a ban on returns at the grocery stores, will reduce returns by forcing recyclers to make an extra stop outside their regular shopping route.

The center would be open seven days a week but would have shorter hours than the four grocery stores.

"Retail is very convenient and this is an item that is used by most people on a daily basis," said Betty Patton, a board member and past president of Recycling Advocates. "I worry (redemption centers) would discourage returns within the system."

The bottle bill, a national first in 1972, has helped drive recycling of beer and soda containers to roughly 80 percent. Under the current system, retailers who sell the containers also accept returns.

Earlier this year, the Legislature considered expanding the bottle bill beyond soda, beer and water bottles. The bill would have required grocers within range of a new redemption center to still accept two dozen containers a day from individual recyclers.

But those efforts died amid opposition from bottlers and grocers, who said they didn't want to pay for two collection systems. Distributors keep unredeemed deposits, helping to pay for collecting returns.

If the redemption center model works, grocers want to establish as many as 100 industry-financed centers, enough to allow 250 of Oregon's 300 large grocery stores to stop accepting returns.

The city of Gresham and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees the bottle bill, need to approve the center.

The Oregon attorney general's office has concluded that bottle bill regulations allow grocers to stop accepting returns if a redemption center is established, said OLCC spokeswoman Christie Scott.

The full commission will consider the proposal, approving it if they judge it provides a convenient service to consumers, Scott said. Gresham officials said it probably will require planning commission approval.

The cooperative is still negotiating a lease at the former Scion auto dealership. Andersen, the cooperative's president, said he knows the first center will draw heavy scrutiny.

"We think we have a model that consumers will love once they can see it and use it," he said. "But the bottle bill raises passions, and we expect there to be passion on both sides."

The cooperative hopes to start a second center by the end of this year and a third in 2010, Andersen said. The 2011 Legislature may take up the redemption center issue again.

Details from Andersen on the proposed center:

Its location, at 975 N.E. Hogan Drive in Gresham, is within 1.6 miles of the four stores that would bar returns, Gresham Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo in Gresham and Albertsons in Troutdale. About 50 convenience stores in the area would still accept returns.

It would open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in winter. That's fewer hours than at the grocery stores, open from at least 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., in Fred Meyer's case. At least initially, there would be two staff on duty during all open hours.

It would include updated "reverse vending" machines for automatic returns. Hand counting by staff would be an option. The cooperative is also negotiating with a company to provide large bags with account coding so recyclers could drop off their returns and go, picking up return credits with cards that could be swiped at in-store machines.

It would accept up to 200 containers daily per person -- up from a maximum of 144 at grocery stores now -- and could accept more from Scout troops, schools and others doing fund-raisers.

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/06/four_grocers_want_to_try_joint.html


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