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June 6th, 2007 Melissa L. Jones | News Stories
 

Message in a Bottle

SOLV gets in bed with the grocers on bottle-bill changes.

     
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IMAGE: Jonah Schrogin
The recent revamp to Oregon's bottle bill adds water and flavored-water bottles to the list of containers that require a deposit. It's a historic development, even though it doesn't raise the nickel bottle deposit or add fruit juice or countless other containers.

The most intriguing back story, however, is the odd alliance of the Northwest Grocery Association and SOLV, the nonprofit that picks up all the bottles and other crap on the beach a couple of times a year.

The 250-member grocery association had opposed the bill revamp because it would increase the number of smelly empties that clog grocery stores' back rooms. The bill, which Gov. Ted Kulongoski will sign June 7, doesn't change that situation immediately.

But the association ultimately opted to back the bill—with revisions—at the last minute when its lobbyists realized it would pass anyway. And now, it's turning its attention with SOLV's support to an interim task force to look at creating off-site bottle-collection centers.

What will SOLV get? The association agreed to push to get SOLV some of the unredeemed bottle deposits now kept by distributors. Those uncollected nickels, which come from buyers of beer and soda, add up to between $7 million and $15 million every year.

"This could not only stabilize SOLV," says SOLV executive director Jack McGowan. "We could enhance our services to so many different counties."

When McGowan took over SOLV in 1990, it ran out of a basement with $12,000 in the bank. McGowan and his wife, Jan, built SOLV into a force that raised $2.4 million in 2006, with a staff of more than 30 that organizes coast cleanups, youth leadership and education projects. Yet SOLV has no stable funding source and ended 2006 with only $39,000 in the bank.

Jeremiah Baumann, an advocate with Environment Oregon, is troubled by SOLV supporting grocery stores.

"[SOLV is] perceived in Salem to be helping the grocers with strategies that, at least on the grocers' part, are intended to undermine the bottle bill," Baumann says. "It's disturbing to see a group that works to clean up litter to even be perceived to be helping with that strategy."

For the past 30 years, most grocers have opposed the bottle bill, which brings their stores noise, security problems and sticky empties filled with rotten limes and used syringes. But their ultimate objective has been to get empties off their property.

SOLV, of course, also hates empty bottles. McGowan says the biggest item in its last beach debris cleanup of 108,000 pounds was water bottles. He encouraged the House Energy and Environment Committee on May 2 to work with the distributors and the grocers.

In a May 9 letter to committee chair Rep. Jackie Dingfelder (D-Portland), grocery association president Joe Gilliam made clear that he had joined forces with SOLV. Picking up some of SOLV's talking points, Gilliam wrote that "SOLV receives almost no public funding and is financially struggling for survival...." He offered some ideas on amendments, including setting up collection centers not at grocery stores and giving SOLV all unredeemed deposits starting Jan. 1, 2009.

Those ideas aren't part of the bill, but could resurface with a task force looking at the unclaimed nickels and the possibility of having bottles collected at redemption centers. Gilliam also says off-site bottle redemption centers might be part of a statewide ballot initiative for 2008. As for SOLV, it's left with an alliance that may be less about the bottle bill and more about its own funding.

"SOLV has proven itself time and time again for 36 years," McGowan says. "This organization is absolutely scrupulous. There's no selling out."

 
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