MY VIEW • An extra 2 cents would make millions for parks

Environmentalists urging bottle bill expansion are squaring off against beverage manufacturers, distributors and grocers.

Simply adding plastic water bottles, as proposed in a current state Senate bill, has gotten grocers pulling out the stops to fight it because of the high cost of collecting the empties.

Time to heed the decade-old advice of an unlikely bottle bill reformer - the late L.L. Stub Stewart: 'Stop thinking so small!'

As secretary of state during the 1990s, I'd been giving a speech titled 'Two Cents for Oregon's Future,' advocating a 7 cent deposit (up from the current 5 cents) as a way of updating the bottle bill.

The extra 2 cents would fund natural resource protection and state parks expansion.

'Your idea is going nowhere,' Stewart roared, arriving unannounced one day in 1995. 'You've got to make it (another) damn nickel!'

Stewart was a lifelong Republican and retired chief executive officer of Bohemia Lumber. Then 84, he also was chairman of the Oregon Parks Commission.

Do two other things, Stewart insisted. Include plastic and many other containers. Most important, get the grocers out of the expensive, time-consuming redemption business.

Instead, raise it a nickel and dedicate 2 to 3 cents per container to finance enough self-standing redemption centers across Oregon to ensure reasonable consumer convenience.

The beverage community and grocers have fundamental differences, Stewart noted. Shrewd politics would neutralize - perhaps even overcome - grocers' genuine concerns.

In the current system, beverage distributors have costs - but also guaranteed revenue.

First, they keep the money from unredeemed containers. Beverage lobbyists routinely have killed bills forcing disclosure, but one credible estimate is $11 million annually.

While distributors and their business partners do lose money recycling some containers (e.g., glass), other containers make money. Each aluminum can fetches almost 2.5 cents in today's scrap market.

Grocers, meanwhile, experience all pain - and no gain. Empty containers take up valuable space. Clerks must count and sort. Rain-soaked consumers, waiting on beer-soaked sidewalks, typically curse grocers, not distributors, for oft-jammed redemption machines.

The extra nickel is arguably a 'tax.' But it's broad-based - more Oregonians drink beverages than pay income tax - and would eliminate the 'hidden tax' of grocers' extra costs.

Why an extra 2 extra cents for land protection and acquisition?

Even in 1995, Stewart foresaw a growing backlash to Oregon's 'regulation only' approach to protecting natural areas, open spaces and endangered species. 'You can only do so much environmental protection on the cheap,' Stewart warned.

Expand the bottle bill's original purposes - litter reduction and recycling. But enlist it for a new, equally compelling duty: to ensure future Oregonians the open spaces and healthy environment they deserve.

It's not small change. Each penny today generates $15 million annually; a reasonable expansion of containers would yield $20 million.

Stewart's warning was prophetic, reflected in Measure 37's passage.

Paying compensation on thousands of Measure 37 claims would be folly. But in extraordinary situations, such funds could protect extraordinary parcels.

One obvious candidate: Wallowa Lake's east moraine, which is renowned by citizens, geologists and Native Americans alike. Its owners recently filed an $8 million claim, threatening to dot the moraine with resort homes.

Stewart died in 2004. A worthy testament to his vision - and political savvy - would have legislators thinking 'big enough' about bottle bill reform to achieve genuine success - and a lot more.

Phil Keisling, a former Oregon secretary of state, is senior vice president of marketing and business development for Hepieric Inc., an Oregon-based technology services firm.

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