Oregon’s Historic Bottle Bill Updated and Expanded

During the 1960s, Oregon hiker and outdoor enthusiast Richard Chambers became frustrated with the amount of litter he encountered while exploring his state’s rivers, forests, and mountains.  In the economic prosperity that followed World War II, the use of disposable metal containers had become widespread for the first time in Oregon and much of the rest of the United States, with the unintended side effect that natural areas became littered with garbage. 

In 1968 Chambers began a years-long campaign to convince state lawmakers to address the problem, eventually resulting in legislation that would be used as a model by other states and countries seeking to limit littering and encourage recycling.  Oregon’s “bottle bill,” as it has become known, helped clean up the outdoors by requiring consumers to make a refundable deposit on certain disposable containers.  Now state lawmakers have updated the law to eventually include more types of containers, in hopes of continuing the bottle bill’s long success story.

When it finally passed the Oregon legislature in 1971, the bottle bill set requirements that consumers pay a nickel deposit on steel and other metal cans, which would be re-funded if the cans were brought back to recycling centers housed at stores.  Since then, the bottle bill has provided an incentive for Oregonians to recycle their containers rather than discarding them as litter or disposing of them in a landfill.  The bottle bill has helped give Oregon one of the highest recycling rates in the nation.  Since Oregon’s passage of the bottle bill forty years ago, ten other states have implemented bottle bills of their own.

Yet as time wore on in the decades following the bottle bill’s original success, environmentalists in Oregon became concerned the law was in desperate need of updating.  For one thing, a five cent deposit in the twenty-first century means a lot less than it did in the early 1970s.  For another, an explosion of new types of beverage containers—many made from plastic rather than metal—means a large percentage of containers used by consumers are no longer covered by the nickel deposit system.

Such concerns led the Oregon legislature to take up the bottle bill again in 2007.  That year state lawmakers expanded the deposit system to include certain water bottles, and established a task force to recommend further ways the law should be updated.  This eventually resulted in a series of updates passed by the 2011 legislature last week. 

Oregon House Bill 3145, which updates the bottle bill, will gradually expand the existing deposit system to include juice, tea, coffee, and energy drink containers.  All beverage containers that are between four ounces and 1.5 liters must be included in the deposit program by the year 2018, greatly increasing the number of containers consumers can return for a nickel refund.  Perhaps just as importantly, the law says that after 2017, container deposits will increase from five to ten cents if the percentage of bottles returned for recycling falls below 80% for two years in a row.

The bottle bill expansion was passed by the Oregon legislature this year with wide margins of support, and received the backing of both Democrats and Republicans.  Earlier this spring House Bill 3145 passed the Oregon House of Representatives in a 47-12 bipartisan vote.  It then went on to the Senate, which voted 19-11 to pass the bill last week.  The final step awaiting the piece of legislation is for it to be signed by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (D).  However this is largely a mere formality as the governor is fully expected to it.

Though it will take several years to be fully implemented, Oregon House Bill 3145 has brought long-awaited updates to one of the most historically important state recycling laws in the United States.  By expanding the bottle bill to include more containers and perhaps eventually raising the deposit charged, the legislation will likely further increase recycling rates in Oregon.  It may even put Oregon in a position to once again lead the nation when it comes to innovative ways for encouraging environmental responsibility. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/4626047848/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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