Sunday, July 1, 2012

Can and bottle deposits

Sometimes an idea might be good in theory, but the way it's implemented ruins it. Let me tell you about can and bottle deposits in Iowa.

When I moved to Iowa, I learned that stores charge you 5¢ per can or bottle they sell you as a "deposit". Then if you bring them back, you get the deposit back. In fact, many stores have machines that take your cans and bottles and give you a ticket you can redeem for cash in the store.

I didn't mind. I thought it's a decent social program to help keep bottles and cans out of the landfill.

But over time, I learned the darker side of it.
  1. Not all cans and bottles are eligible. Cans and bottles that store non-carbonated beverages (like iced tea and water) are exempt. Alcohol containers are an exception to the exemption -- there's a deposit on those.
  2. You may receive a refund only for cans and bottles that you bought in that state. Michigan pays out 10¢ per can, but it's illegal for an Iowan to try to submit cans and bottles there. Michigan checks ID.
  3. Cans and bottles must be rinsed, dry, and undamaged to receive a refund. If a can is too damaged, it won't go through the machine. This is ironic considering as soon as the machine accepts your can, it crushes it.
  4. Stores put their can/bottle sorting machines into a separate room. That's where you must go to submit your cans and bottles for deposit refund. These rooms are the most disgusting place I've ever been in. Imagine a slaughterhouse, complete with the wall of stench and blood-soaked floor. Except here the stench is from spoiled and warm wine and beer, lazily evaporating from the floor. The floor appears never mopped, and my shoes stick. After sorting through dozens of cans and bottles, my hands are sticky, and there's no faucet.
  5. The onus of returning the deposit is on the store that sold you the product. A store is obligated to take back only items that it carries. It's not uncommon for half of my cans and bottles to be "unauthorized at this location" when I take them to a store. When this happens, I must take the rejects to the customer service counter and have an employee count them and sort them manually.
  6. Walking in with two large garbage bags of cans and bottles, I walk out with a grand total of $3.60. That's three dollars and sixty cents.
  7. From the store's perspective, the expense of managing this program seems to outweigh the benefit. The slaughterhouse room is constantly staffed by someone responsible for unjamming sorting machines and emptying them. (A candidate for Dirtiest Jobs?) The store's customer service also has to spend its time on people bringing in their recycling. A portion of the customer service counter is dedicated to cans and bottles, and there are giant bags of cans and bottles behind the counter.
Given all this, I've decided to not bother trying to get my deposit back. Of course, that's what the state is counting on anyway. The harder the state makes it for people to get their deposit back, the more money they keep. So let's call it what it is: a tax.

If you're an Iowan, I hope you agree with me that Iowa's deposit system is very flawed and should be either improved or scrapped entirely. I prefer to scrap it.