Last month, representatives from Clark County Public Health, the city of Vancouver, local law enforcement, a local waste hauler and a large Oregon-based recycling cooperative gathered in a room in Vancouver City Hall. They were there to discuss a problem they all knew existed but weren’t sure how to address.
Over the last year, reports of people rummaging through recycling bins have increased in Clark County. The target of these scavengers has been discarded bottles and cans, which have become increasingly valuable on the other side of the Columbia River. In 2017, Oregon doubled the deposit on redeemable containers from 5 to 10 cents, meaning a few sacks full of bottles and cans could be exchanged for some extra cash.
But the out-of-state bottles and cans being redeemed in Oregon are undercutting a mainstay of the state’s recycling system as well as Waste Connections, Clark County’s primary waste hauler. Clark County residents have also complained that strangers combing through their trash and recycling leaves them uneasy.
“This is a growing concern of our residents that shouldn’t go unnoticed,” said Kim Harless, solid waste operations specialist at Clark County Public Health, who was at the meeting.
She said that representatives present at the meeting walked away with a better understanding of each other’s respective roles and some ideas to address the problem. She also said that local governments in Clark County want to see the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, which oversees the state’s container deposit system, succeed.
While local governments in Clark County have limited tools and their efforts are just starting, they could soon get help from Oregon. Last week, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that’s intended to deter people seeking to cash in on out-of-state containers.
How bottle bills work
Oregon is one of 10 states that have a container deposit. Also called “bottle bills,” they attach a redeemable deposit (usually a nickel) to bottles and cans of soda, beer, water and other beverages.
Bottle bills have been credited with reducing litter and increasing recycling. But faced with sagging return rates, the Oregon Legislature in 2011 passed a bill that mandated that the deposit be increased to 10 cents if the recycling rate for covered containers dropped below 80 percent for two consecutive years. As a result, the deposit was increased in 2017 and the next year it was expanded to include most other beverage containers, including those for tea, coffee, cider, juice and others.
Return and recycling rates for bottles and cans rose after the deposit increased. In January, the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative reported that about 90 percent of containers covered by the deposit were returned for recycling.
But the success of the increased deposit has had unintended effects. Joel Schoening, community relations manager for the cooperative, said that because bottles and cans don’t have a bar code or other reliable mechanism to track where they were purchased he didn’t have clear numbers on how many out-of-state containers are being redeemed in Oregon.
He did say that employees at cooperative-operated BottleDrop Redemption Centers as well as retailers stop people with out-of-state plates on their vehicles (particularly Washington) from trying to redeem bottles and cans on a daily basis. Describing it as a “cross-river issue,” he said that the problem is particularly acute near the border.
Oregon has a unique container deposit system that is run by a private cooperative owned by beverage distributors and grocery retailers. Schoening said the system is funded by deposits and is undermined when bottles and cans from outside of it are redeemed.
“We are pro-recycling, but we can’t afford to do it for other states,” said Schoening. “This is a burden on our system.”
Derek Ranta, district manager for Waste Connections, also didn’t have exact figures on how many bottles and cans are being removed from recycling bins in Clark County. But he said that enough are being moved across the border to be a financial hit to the company, which sells the recycling.
While it’s illegal in both the city of Vancouver and Clark County to scavenge recyclables, Ranta said that it’s difficult to police.
“Priority wise, it’s not a big priority, and I get that,” said Ranta.
Harless said that people likely aren’t aware of the law. She said that some people may set aside containers for others to take them across the border for redemption unaware that they are contributing to a problem. She said that Public Health will be doing outreach to the public.
One potential solution that came out of the meeting between the cooperative and local agencies was getting better data to track scavenging.
As part of that effort, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency (CRESA), the county’s emergency call center, is looking into creating a way to track calls reporting scavenging. The idea is for the agency to create a code for scavenging calls that will generate data that can be used by local agencies and the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. For instance, the data could be used to identify areas where scavenging is particularly frequent.
But Kris DeVore, CRESA’s operations manager, said that creating a protocol to record calls of scavenging won’t be straightforward and the agency is working with Public Health and Waste Connections to develop it. She said that calls reporting scavenging could also fall under other offenses, such as trespassing or possibly identity theft. She also said that it will be difficult for law enforcement to catch people in the act or to gather enough evidence to cite them.
Ranta said that people should report scavenging to 311, the county’s non-emergency number, or call 911 if there is a more active situation or some kind of danger.
“The important part is to make that call in a timely manner,” he said.
Meanwhile in Oregon
Last week, the Oregon Legislature overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 522. The bill quietly moved through the Oregon Legislature during the busy session and was sponsored by Sen. Betsy Johnson, D- Scappoose, who represents a district bordering Washington.
Currently, retailers and redemption centers can refuse containers from individuals with Washington license plates who can’t prove they purchased the beverages in Oregon. But returning out-of-state containers is not specifically illegal.
Johnson’s bill would make it a Class D violation (the same as a traffic violation) for an individual to return 50 or more beverage containers in one day if they knew they were not sold in Oregon and had the intent to defraud the system.
The bill was criticized by both the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon for its potential to penalize poor people who rely on container redemptions for income.
Kate Kondayen, spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown, said in an email that the governor’s office will review the bill before Brown decides to sign it or not.
Schoening said that whether or not the bill is signed, Washington and other out-of-state residents can still redeem containers in Oregon for legitimately purchased covered beverages in the state. He advised Washington residents to keep their receipts and provide them as proof or purchase when redeeming their deposits.
“We welcome legitimate returns,” he said.