From the Beginning
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, under Governor Tom McCall, Oregon became known as an environmental leader by passing landmark legislation on such issues as land use planning and the open beach bill, cleaning up the Willamette River, and forming the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. But as much as any other piece of legislation, it was the Oregon Bottle Bill, signed into law in July 1971, which has defined how Oregonians think of themselves and their environment.
The original intent of the bottle bill was to reduce Oregon’s growing litter problem and to conserve resources. The original language included carbonated and malt beverages only because these were the most common containers disposed of along Oregon highways.
The 1971 law was not the first attempt at such legislation in Oregon. Three legislators introduced a short bill in 1969 that would have simply banned the sale of beer in non-returnable containers. This bill died in the House on a 27-33 vote, largely due to a promise by the beverage industry to find suitable solutions to the litter problem for the 1971 Legislature to consider.
During the legislative interim, other states and provinces took on the issue of throwaway beverage containers. In spring 1970, British Columbia became the first province in North America to require that all beer and soft drink containers be returnable. Washington State voted on a similar initiative in the fall of 1970. Preliminary polls showed the Washington initiative as winning by an overwhelming majority[i]. However, following a very expensive publicity push by the national beverage and container industries, the initiative failed by a 49 percent to 51 percent margin.
In Oregon, an interim legislative committee worked on issues of litter and throwaway containers. In all, the committee held 16 hearings and heard testimony from 143 witnesses. The full committee recommended a package of nine legislative acts to be considered by the 1971 Legislature. Among these was HB 1036 - the Bottle Bill.
From the start of the 1971 legislative session, HB 1036 was one of the most intensely lobbied bills in the history of the Oregon Legislature[ii]. In spite of intense lobbying by the container and beverage industries, HB 1036 passed the House by 54-6 and the Senate by 22-8, and was signed into law by Governor McCall on July 2, 1971.
Changes over the first 40 years
Many amendments to the bottle bill were proposed since 1971, but few had been adopted until 2007 legislation that expanded the bill to include water and flavored water containers, and 2011 legislation that expanded the law further to include juices, teas and most other non-carbonated beverages.
Before 2007, few amendments had much effect on the bill’s overall nature. The most significant earlier changes were to require that the plastic ring connectors used to hold cans or bottles together be biodegradable or photodegradable (1977), and to allow stores to limit redemption to no more than 144 containers from a single person per day (1981, 1993).
Since the first Oregon bottle bill passed in 1971, Oregon has seen major changes in the nature or type of beverages and containers distributed and sold in the state. Foremost among these are the following:
- New containers. In 1971, plastic bottles were not being used for soft drinks. Plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) did not become common until the 1980s. However, the law was flexible enough to accommodate this new type of container, and PET bottles ended up being collected and recycled just like aluminum cans. Many credit bottle bills in Oregon and other states as the birthplace of post-consumer plastics recycling. For years, almost all post-consumer plastic recycled in the United States came from soft drink PET bottles collected in bottle bill states.
- New beverages. As early as 1973, a bill was introduced in the Oregon Legislature to add wine, liquor and non-carbonated drinks to the bottle bill. However, wine and liquor bottles are relatively rare in litter since they are mainly consumed in homes and restaurants, not out on the road. Non-carbonated drinks were also rare in litter back in 1973, since very few were sold in single-serve bottles and cans. Recycling also was not as big an issue in the early 1970s as it is today. Wine, liquor and fruit juices were all sold in glass bottles while glass recycling was still in its infancy. The large glass bottle manufacturing plant owned by Owens Illinois in Portland was the first bottling plant in the nation to recycle post-consumer glass bottles, but it only started doing so in 1970 and by 1973 were only recycling about one-tenth of the glass it recycles today. Without strong support based on litter and recycling issues, the 1973 expansion proposal did not pass.
The advent of wine coolers in the 1980s nearly led to the first expansion of the bottle bill. Wine coolers are carbonated mixes of wine and fruit juices sold in single-serve glass bottles that closely resembled beer and soft drink bottles. As coolers increased in popularity, efforts were made to include them in the bottle bill. In 1987, both the Oregon House and Senate passed bills to include wine coolers, but each bill had conflicting provisions that were not resolved in conference committee (concerning franchising of wine sales and handling fees for returned containers), and so neither bill passed. Ironically, further changes in the beverage world made this expansion a moot issue. Makers of “cooler” drinks converted from wine to malt beverages in order to avoid wine taxes. As “malt coolers,” these beverages are now covered under the bottle bill without any change in the law.
In the 1990s, new beverages such as juice drinks, ready-to-drink teas, sports drinks and bottled water packaged in PET plastic came on the market and surged in popularity. Although traditional soft drinks and beer still make up most “single-serve” beverage sales, these other new beverages have established substantial and increasing market share. Many of these beverages are sold in bottles and cans virtually identical to the bottles and cans used for the soft drinks and beer covered under the bottle bill, leading many Oregonians to question why they were not included in the law.
In 1996, a coalition led by the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) sponsored a ballot initiative to add most non-carbonated beverages to the law except for dairy products, wine and liquor. Initial support for the initiative was high, but it ended up failing at the ballot box following a large publicity campaign by manufacturers, distributors and retailers of the affected beverages. The campaign depicted the ballot measure as poorly drafted and a threat to the existing bottle bill.
- Refillable containers. Although litter reduction was the primary goal of the bottle bill in 1971, another goal was to promote the use of refillable bottles. These containers use far less energy and natural resources when washed and refilled again and again than the so-called one-way or “throwaway” bottles.
Refillable bottles were common prior to passage of the bottle bill. In 1971, about 36 percent of beer and 53 percent of soft drink bottles were true refillable bottles. Non-refillable bottles made up 31 percent of beer and 7 percent of soft drinks while cans made up 33 percent of beer and 40 percent of soft drinks. The immediate effect of the bottle bill was a sharp reduction in both cans and non-refillable bottles. Shortly after passage of the law, more than 90 percent of beer and soft drinks sold in Oregon were sold in refillable glass bottles.
For cans it was probably not the deposit that had the largest effect but that the bottle bill also prohibited cans with easily detachable pull-tabs. The non-detachable pull-tab commonly used today was not available in 1971, and other designs for can lids were not widely used. Over the years, however, beverage packing shifted back again. Aluminum cans are now as common in Oregon as they are in other states.
Oregon’s preference for standardized refillable bottles separates itself from other states’ laws, allowing refillable containers to carry a 2-cent deposit instead of the standard 5-cent deposit and offer an environmentally superior option for the consumer. However, the mid-1980s saw an increase in customized manufacturing of containers that increased sales. The 3-cent difference in deposit was no match for the colorful and shapely new bottles. Another factor that contributed to the demise of refillable containers was the consolidation of the beverage industry. With the shift from many local bottlers to a handful of production plants serving the entire country, beverage manufacturers decided that backhauling empties was no longer a financially viable option.
- Inflation. A nickel in 1971 bought a lot more than a nickel does today. According to the Portland Consumer Price Index, a nickel in 1971 would be equal to about 28 cents in buying power in 2010. If deposits had kept up with inflation, the deposit on a six-pack would be about $1.66 today rather than 30 cents. There is strong evidence that the size of deposits does affect the return rate of containers. Michigan, which has a minimum 10-cent deposit, has the highest return rate of all the states with bottle bills. California's redemption rate has climbed sharply as it has raised its redemption values over the years from 1 cent to 2½ cents to 4 cents and now to 5 cents for bottles 24oz and less. In November 2008, Alberta raised its refund value to 10 cents for most containers and 25 cents for containers larger than a liter, in order to increase its recovery rate for containers. Alberta's redemption rate has climbed sharply as a result, from 76 percent in 2007 to 82.4 percent in 2016.
- Recycling cooperatives. Another change in redemption practices began in 1987, when Portland-area distributors banded together to form Container Recovery Inc., otherwise known as CRinc - a cooperative for handling beverage container returns from stores. Instead of stores having to separate their containers by distributor, CRinc would directly send their collection truck to the larger stores and pick up all containers of their member distributors. This significantly reduced costs involved in redeeming and storing containers. Over time, similar cooperatives formed in different parts of the state, such as the Beverage Recyclers of Oregon in the Eugene area.
Practically every legislative session since 1971 has included proposals to amend the bottle bill. Proposals often included expanding the beverages covered under the law, raising the refund value, and/or reporting of sales and returns of beverage containers. Bottled water’s explosive growth starting in the late 1990s, combined with a slow erosion of the beverage container redemption rate, finally triggered action. In 2007, a host of bills were introduced in the Oregon Legislature, including bills that would add all beverages to the bottle bill, or set up a separate Bottle Bill Board to oversee the law, or get the state directly involved in the deposit/redemption process, similar to California's program. What eventually passed in 2007 was Senate Bill 707, which had four key provisions:
1) Water and flavored water were added to the bottle bill, effective Jan.1, 2009.
2) Stores occupying 5,000 square feet or more must begin accepting empty containers of any brand or size, if they sell the same type of beverage, effective Jan. 1, 2009. For example, a store that sells soft drinks must accept and pay a refund on any brand of soft drink container.
3) Stores occupying less than 5,000 square feet can limit the number of containers they redeem to 50 per person per day.
4) The law set up the Bottle Bill Task Force, charged with submitting a report to the governor by Nov. 1, 2008 on recommendations on how to further expand or modify the bottle bill’s recycling system.
The first two provisions had a significant impact on how beverages are redeemed. Generally, most beer and soft drink distributors have franchises such that only one franchisee operates in an area. Thus, each distributor is responsible for redeeming containers in their area, and there are few problems with distributors being forced to redeem containers originally sold by other distributors. Since water distributors are not generally franchised, though, there is real potential for one distributor to collect deposits on water bottles but another distributor having to redeem those bottles and pay out refunds that they never collected as deposits. Also, a small distributor serving only part of the state might find that their containers are being returned to stores hundreds of miles away, and they would still be required to collect those containers. As a result, it made sense for all distributors to band together to create a unified system of redeeming containers throughout the state. This would reduce the accounting and sorting problems and make it so that individual distributors did not have to service the entire state. This is what happened, and on Jan. 1, 2009, CRinc, BROCO and almost all other distributor and distributor cooperatives in Oregon joined together to form the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, or OBRC.
The Bottle Bill Task Force met 10 times beginning in November 2007 to study and make recommendations on beverage container collection and refund matters. When completed, the Task Force issued a number of recommendations, including the following four key recommendations:
(a) To support an industry proposal for the beverage industry to set up and run a statewide system of redemption centers
(b) To expand the list of beverages to include sports drinks, coffees, teas, juices, wines, liquors and other beverages, excluding milk or milk substitutes
(c) To increase the refund value of beverage containers to 10 cents
(d) That a goal be set for an 80 percent return rate under the proposed system.
In 2009, House Bill 2184 proposed to implement most of the Bottle Bill Task Force’s recommendations. Although this legislation received considerable support, it did not pass, as the beverage industry successfully argued that it needed more time to fully implement water bottle redemption and for the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative to gain more experience before being handed an entirely new set of requirements to implement.
By 2011, there was still considerable interest in expanding the bottle bill, increasing the container refund value, and improving the redemption experience for consumers. Redemption rates, which had exceeded 90 percent in the first 15 years of the bottle bill, had fallen to 75 percent by 2009. The market share of juices and other non-covered beverages continued to increase compared to soft drinks and beer. Also, the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative now had two years of operational experience, and distributors representing more than 95 percent of all covered beverages sold in Oregon had joined OBRC as members. The cooperative had also established two pilot redemption centers - one in Wood Village and the other in Oregon City, to test this new model for redemption.
At this point, the Oregon beverage and grocery industries could see a path forward to improve container redemption efficiency under the bottle bill in a way that would allow them to expand the list of beverages covered under the law and improve redemption rates. A compromise proposal came together in the form of House Bill 3145. This legislation had support among the beverage and grocery industries as well as the environmental community. HB 3145 passed the Oregon Legislature with broad bipartisan support, and Governor John Kitzhaber signed it into law on June 9, 2011, only a few weeks before the 40th anniversary of the signing of the original bottle bill by Gov. Tom McCall in 1971. Key provisions of HB 3145 included the following:
1) Effective no later than Jan. 1, 2018, the list of beverages covered under the bottle bill would be expanded to cover all beverages except wine, liquor, milk and milk substitutes. These new beverages would be covered if in bottles or cans from 4 ounces up to 1.5 liters in size, while beer, soft drinks and water would continue to be included in all containers up to 3 liters in size.
2) If the Oregon Liquor Control Commission determined that the redemption rate for covered beverage containers was below 80 percent for the two most recent consecutive years, the refund value would increase to 10 cents on the following January 1st or eight months after OLCC makes the determination, whichever comes first.
3) OLCC was also directed to approve a redemption center pilot project to be operated by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. This pilot redemption center would be on a larger scale than the cooperative’s two existing redemption centers. If this pilot were to be successful, OBRC hoped to use this as a model to build a system of redemption centers throughout Oregon to help make redemption more convenient to the public and reduce burdens on retailers to accept back empty containers.
After 40 years, the Oregon Bottle Bill continues to be a powerful symbol that the conservation ethic is alive and well in Oregon. Passage of the bottle bill amendments was one of the most highly publicized pieces of legislation from the Oregon 2011 Legislature. Changes outlined in this legislation, such as the expansion of accepted items and the creation of redemption centers, have already come to fruition, and the final step of increasing the refund amount to 10-cents went into effect on January 1, 2018.
[i] Central Surveys of Shenandoah, Iowa, conducted statewide polls in Washington in early July and late September 1970. The July poll found 82 percent of respondents in favor of the bottle bill initiative, and 79 percent were in favor in the late September poll.
[ii] Newsweek, June 14, 1971, quotes Oregon Attorney General Lee Johnson as saying “I have never seen as much pressure exerted by so many vested interests against a single bill.”