Time to can the old Bottle Bill

Oregon passed its Bottle Bill in 1971, creating a deposit system on soda cans and other drink containers. It worked, but it’s worthless today.

The concept came from Richard Chambers, a logging equipment salesman. A hiker, he picked up trash along Oregon’s trails and beaches. He came up with a bright idea how to solve it, contacted state legislator Paul Hanneman and outlined the idea, which originated from a news story about how British Columbia, Canada, had banned non-returnable bottles and containers.

Since then, many Oregonians have faithfully separated those soda and beer cans and bottles from their garbage to recapture five cents per can. Some of us are almost neurotic about it. Californians come up here and look at us like we’re crazy as they gleefully chuck the aluminum into the trash without batting an eye.

The bill has drastically reduced litter problems on the beaches, trails and the highways, an apparent success. After all, it created a generation of crazy people collecting cans along roadsides or just saving mounds of them in their garages.

Fast forward to 2011. The Bottle Bill is a headache and a nuisance. A lot of us are sick and tired of it. Taking cans back sometimes fails to pay minimum wage – after we get done fighting for a deposit we paid and are supposed to get back after we’re done with the containers.

Grab that sack of cans from your garage and head down to either of our fine grocery stores. You’ll find a line of people with sacks full of cans. You will stand around waiting for the machines to break and some poor employee to come fix it.

After stops and starts, you get your chance; but it rejects the same cans you actually bought at that store. You put them in several more times. It might accept them, but maybe it won’t. When you ask an employee whether he can count them and refund the deposit, he tells you that he was scolded for taking bottles that way just a few days earlier, catching the poor clerk in the middle of absurdity.

You went down to the store at 6:30 p.m. You leave at around 8 p.m., about $11 richer. What a waste.

The retailers opposed the bottle bill fiercely in the beginning. They can’t really be blamed. They were forced to become responsible and be part of a solution for their thoughtless customers’ failures – littering. Laws against littering didn’t work, but making retailers collect and refund a deposit did, so they were stuck with it for the next four decades.

They complained about labor costs for bottle boys. They convinced the legislature to allow them to accept a maximum of 144 cans per day from the same customer. They complained about the mess. They brought us an amazing solution.

Sometime in the 1990s, we got the machine, the automated one that takes the cans back one at a time – and it failed gloriously. We keep seeing new, improved machines that should take everything, but they always fail and turn the process into a part-time job.

Perhaps that’s the goal of retailers — to eventually get us to quit bringing cans to them. It makes sense.

The politicians have gotten busy and brought us a new bill, increasing the number of containers covered by the law and increasing the deposit per container to 10 cents. The bill awaits the governor’s signature, but it won’t really help.

Politicians need to deal with the problem: either force stores to provide a convenient way for customers to receive their refunds – something as simple as it is for retailers to collect the deposits in the first place – or ditch the law.