Early last month, Mark Moors woke up to discover that someone stole something he was trying to throw away.
Moors recalled setting out a bin full of glass bottles on the curb outside his Cascade Park home to be picked up for recycling. The next morning the bin was gone. He logged onto Nextdoor, a private online network that allows neighbors to share information, and discovered that others in his neighborhood also reported having their recycling bins rummaged through in pursuit of bottles and cans.
After Thanksgiving, he said, he witnessed a woman digging through his recycling in the early morning hours. Moors said he thinks he knows where the bottles and cans are going.
“We might as well just put a big recycling can at the end of the street and say, ‘Take it to Oregon,’ ” said Moors.
Unlike Washington, Oregon is among 10 states with a container deposit law or “bottle bill.” These laws attach a redeemable deposit on many beverage containers to incentivize their collection and recycling.
Last year, Oregon increased its deposit from 5 to 10 cents on bottles and cans of soda, beer and other beverages purchased in the state. A more lucrative deposit has raised concerns that more bottles and cans from Washington are being redeemed in Oregon, undermining the state’s redemption system.
“We do know that there are problems based on the number of interactions we have with people coming from Washington,” said Joel Schoening, spokesman for the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, the industry-led cooperative that manages the state’s bottle bill.
While there are no clear figures on how big the problem is, Schoening said that the annual cost to the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative is in the six-figure range. There’s also anecdotal evidence from both states it’s happening.
Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Democrat who represents a district bordering Washington, said she’s heard enough complaints that she’ll introduce legislation to crack down on people trying to redeem out-of-state bottles.
“I have all the data I need, which is hearing from my grocery stores that they are drowning in out-of-state (bottles and cans),” said Johnson.
Road to redemption
Oregon passed the nation’s first bottle bill in 1971 as a mechanism for reducing litter and increasing recycling. The system has proven to be effective, with bottle bill states having higher recycling rates for beverage containers than elsewhere.
But the prospect of fraud has also haunted these states. There’s even an episode of “Seinfeld” where Kramer and Newman launch a scheme to take bottles and cans from New York to Michigan, where the deposit is 10 cents.
In 2011, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill requiring the bottle deposit to increase to 10 cents if the recycling rate for covered containers fell below 80 percent for two consecutive years. As return rates lagged, the deposit was increased to a dime last year. Beginning this year, the deposit was expanded to include most other beverages sold in containers ranging in size from 4 ounces to 1.5 liters, including tea, coffee, cider, juice and others. It appears to be paying off.
“Measured in raw volume of containers, the third quarter of 2018 was by far the busiest three months in the history of Oregon’s bottle return system,” reads the most recent quarterly report from the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. The report noted that this was the first quarter that saw both the increased deposit and expansion of included containers. During this quarter, the cooperative collected more than 500 million containers, according to the report.
Schoening said in a follow-up email that the cooperative expects about 90 percent of deposit containers to be returned this year. He said that more than 250,000 households have signed up for BottleDrop accounts, which allow consumers to track and collect their deposits. Getting an account requires identification. But containers can still be redeemed for cash with no account.
After the Safeway supermarket at Jantzen Beach closed in June, the Delta Park BottleDrop redemption center became the closest location to Vancouver to redeem bottles and cans. In the third quarter of 2018, the Delta Park BottleDrop saw 17.5 million containers redeemed, the third most of the state’s 24 redemption centers.
On the sliding door to the Delta Park BottleDrop, there’s a sign featuring an image of a crossed-out Washington license plate. The sign cites an Oregon Liquor Control Commission administrative rule that allows grocery stores and redemption centers to refuse containers from individuals they reasonably suspect came from out of state.
The sign states that BottleDrop redemption centers will refuse to accept containers from individuals with Washington license plates who can’t prove they purchased the beverages in Oregon.
The sign makes no mention of penalties or prosecution. Currently, there are no penalties or fines for trying to redeem out-of-state containers, according to Matthew Van Sickle, spokesman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. Sen. Johnson’s bill would change that.
“It has become, in my opinion, a public health, public safety and economic problem,” said Johnson.
The Scappoose Democrat said that she’s heard from a grocery store manager in her district who complained about people trying to redeem out-of-state containers and becoming aggressive and swearing in the parking lot when they were refused.
She didn’t have details, but Johnson said the bill she’s working on for Oregon’s upcoming legislative session will be based on Michigan’s anti-fraud law and will allow for prosecution of people who try to redeem out-of-state cans.
Where’s the proof?
Both the city of Vancouver and Clark County frown on taking items from recycling bins, but neither jurisdiction is sure how often it’s happening.
In an email, Tanya Gray, the city’s solid waste supervisor, pointed to a city website stating that scavenging recyclables is against the law. She said if residents want to donate cans to someone, they shouldn’t use curbside carts or the recycling system to do so. Clark County Public Health spokeswoman Marissa Armstrong said in an email that county code prohibits the removal of recyclable materials in or nearby recycling bins without the consent of the business or resident that owns them or the waste hauler.
Gray and Armstrong both said that their jurisdictions don’t track reports of recyclables removed from bins.
“For those reasons, we can’t speak to whether it’s become an issue in the county,” said Armstrong.
Waste Connections, the county’s primary garbage and recycling hauler, didn’t have data on bottles and cans being taken to Oregon. Derek Ranta, district manager, said in an email that finding a correlation is difficult.
He said that in 2017, when Oregon increased its deposit, Columbia Resource Company, a Waste Connections subsidiary that processes recycling in Clark County, saw a 9 percent drop in glass volumes delivered from curbside collection. He said the drop was likely caused by scavenging. In 2018, the rate went back up for unclear reasons, he said.
Part of the difficulty in determining if containers are being brought to Oregon is the lack of a code or marker that tracks where they were purchased. But there are indications that bottles and cans are headed south.
In September, Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, told The Columbian that redemption rates in some areas near Oregon’s borders have seen large increases — sometimes more than 100 percent.
Sanitation and safety issues posed by large bags of bottles and cans brought on C-Tran buses became enough of a problem for the transit agency to announce a ban over the summer on riders taking them aboard.
Schoening said that taking containers purchased in Washington to Oregon for redemption doesn’t hurt taxpayers. Unlike in other bottle-bill states, Oregon’s system is run by a cooperative supported by over 130 beverage distributors.
With global recycling markets in turmoil from China’s stringent contamination restrictions on imported recyclables, he said that bottle bills result in cleaner material that’s processed domestically.
“It’s a burden on what we believe is the most efficient bottle-return system in the country,” he said.