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It's time to re-think the Oregon Bottle Bill

The next time you’re having a frustrating experience with a bottle return machine, there is one key fact to keep in mind to help explain the situation: For every container you fail to return, the organization that provides the vast majority of the return machines gets to keep your deposit nickel. With the deposit amount increasing to 10 cents next April it’s time to re-examine the system.

When fewer containers are returned, the recycling system operator, the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC) gets more money, not less. The monetary incentive is for the machines not to work.

Let’s see how OBRC gets to keep your nickel when you fail to return a deposit container. Let’s consider a purchase of 10 cans of soda with a deposit value of 5 cents per can: (1) The OBRC distributor delivers 10 cans of soda to the store and collects 50 cents deposit from the store; (2) The store sells you the 10 cans and collects 50 cents deposit from you; the store has now broken even and has no need for you to return the cans; (3) You return six of the 10 cans; the store gives you 30 cents deposit return money; the store is now out 30 cents; and (4) The store gives the six cans back to OBRC and gets 30 cents from OBRC; the store has broken even again.

Note that the OBRC collected the full 50 cents deposit when the cans were delivered, but only had to return 30 cents to the store because not all the cans were returned. Unlike other states such as Michigan, 100 percent of this “unredeemed deposit money” is kept by the Oregon distributors. While this example involves a small amount of money, the total unredeemed deposit money kept by the OBRC is about $20 million per year.

OBRC also sells the collected containers for scrap and its members keep the proceeds. Other recycling companies rely for their profits entirely on selling scrap materials after collection and don’t have the advantage of receiving the unredeemed funds.

In spite of the fact that the OBRC obtains the unredeemed deposits because of public law, it is not a public organization. We can’t find out what its collection costs are or how it spends its money.

Oregon’s system is vastly different than Michigan’s, where the distributors get none of the unredeemed deposits. Instead, Michigan’s unredeemed deposits go into a public fund and 25 percent of that fund goes to the stores to cover their handling costs. A store that has a good return system and collects more containers gets more money producing a positive incentive for good operating machines. Meanwhile, in Oregon, markets with the recycling machines get nothing for maintaining them and receive no handling fees. In fact, most stores pay to lease the machines. If the machines don’t work well and you take your containers elsewhere this is just less work for the store.

On the positive side of the OBRC ledger, its virtual monopoly results in a very efficient system. The OBRC picks up all containers statewide, no matter the brand or distributor. It has started innovative “Bottle Drop Centers” where consumers can just drop off containers without using machines and collect deposit money via online accounts. There are plans for 45 of these centers. A total of 16 have been built with four additional units per year of planned expansion.

The nearest Bottle Drop Center to Hillsboro is in Tigard. Cherilyn Bertges of the OBRC wrote to me that there are plans for a Hillsboro center but no date of opening or location is yet available.

While the OBRC deserves credit for innovating these centers, the fact remains that our system is not transparent and has a negative incentive for returns. We don’t know, for example, if more money could have gone into Bottle Drop Centers so that Hillsboro could have had one by now.

Can we keep the efficiency of the current system but at least provide a system with a positive incentive to return containers?

One suggestion has been that if the recycling rate falls below a certain percentage, say 90 percent, then the unredeemed money from containers below that percentage would go to a public fund that could be used like Michigan’s.

It’s time that we took a serious look at improving our first-in-the-nation bottle bill and making it more responsive to public needs. Legislators?

Walt Hellman is a retired Hillsboro High School physics teacher and longtime member of the Hillsboro Planning and Zoning Hearings Board. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..