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Give bottle bill a broad review

Oregon's first-in-the-nation bottle bill, adopted in 1971, has fallen behind the times.

It hasn't kept pace with inflation - the deposit is still a nickel. Nor has it stayed current with consumers' tastes. Over the past 36 years, they've switched from soda and beer, which comes in bottles and cans requiring a deposit, to bottled water products that don't carry a deposit.

But while these shortcomings of the original bottle bill are becoming well-known, the law is lagging in another significant way: It still assumes that the best method for recycling bottles and cans is to require them to be returned to the stores that sell those products.

The Oregon Legislature is trying to bring the bottle bill up to date with Senate Bill 707, which passed the state Senate on Monday. This legislation addresses many of the age-related flaws in the bottle bill, but not in a complete manner. We believe Oregon's House of Representatives can improve upon the Senate's work by taking a more comprehensive approach.

Include noncarbonated drinks

In its present form, Senate Bill 707 primarily takes aim at the massive stream of plastic now escaping the 5-cent deposit. It does so by extending the deposit to noncarbonated beverages - most of which are sold in plastic containers.

By including bottled water and flavored water under the revised bottle bill, legislators hope to increase recycling rates and reduce litter. Consumers of these products will be less likely to toss out bottles that require a deposit.

And people who seemingly make a hobby - or a living - out of collecting discarded cans and bottles now will have a whole new classification of containers to target.

We are confident the changes will make Oregon cleaner and greener, but we also think the House Energy and Environment Committee, led by Rep. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, should expand upon the bill.

Dingfelder understands that evolving consumer habits are only one reason the bottle bill isn't working as well as it could. The 5-cent deposit is less of an economic incentive than it was in 1971. If indexed for inflation, it would be 25 cents today.

Options for recycling also are growing. In 1971, curbside recycling didn't exist. Neither did recycling centers that have been set up in other states for the purpose of collecting containers that carry a deposit.

Another problem with the original bottle bill has been corrected in every other state that's adopted similar legislation: Oregon is now the only state that requires a deposit but doesn't provide a handling fee to grocers.

Consider burden on grocers

As Senate Bill 707 moves through the House, legislators must consider more than the issue of carbonated vs. noncarbonated beverages. They should raise the deposit and allocate a portion to grocers for their expenses. They also should consider following Maine's example by giving individual grocers the option of letting a conveniently located, licensed agent handle their bottle redemption for them.

The Senate legislation does call for a task force to be formed after this session to study further changes to the bottle bill and make recommendations to the 2009 Legislature.

The task force is a fine idea, but some of these issues have been with us for decades and don't need to wait for 2009.

Oregon can look to examples from other states. In some cases, they have improved upon Oregon's original innovation and enacted laws that capture more bottles and cans - but place a lighter burden on grocers in the process.