Other Grocers Want the Same Bottle Return Exemption Granted to One Safeway in Oregon

The adjacent Plaid Pantry also benefits from a rare exemption to the Bottle Bill.

YES WE CAN: Street activity outside the Safeway on Southwest 11th Avenue. (Nathaniel Perales)

LOCATION: 1030 SW Jefferson St.

WHAT HAPPENED: On Feb. 29, Gov. Tina Kotek announced she was suspending individual container returns under the Bottle Bill for one month at the Southwest Portland Safeway and an adjacent Plaid Pantry at 1305 SW 11th Ave. The exemption means neither store will accept loose cans or bottles until April 1. (Safeway will continue to take bagged containers under the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative’s green bag program.)

Kotek’s decision—part of a joint fentanyl emergency that she, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson declared Jan. 30—marked a highly unusual step. The only other time the Bottle Bill has been suspended was during the pandemic.

WHY: Kotek acted after WW publicized the connection between public fentanyl use and can and bottle returns, as well as the impact on surrounding neighborhoods (“House of Cans,” WW, Feb. 7). Downtown residents had previously complained about the endless cycle of canners exiting stores and buying and smoking fentanyl outside, but legislators brushed off their concerns.

There have always been drug dealers downtown, and the Bottle Bill is 50 years old. But what changed recently is that the extremely low price of fentanyl—as cheap as $1 a pill—made the easy cash from cans part of the problem.

WHAT’S NEXT: The unified command for the fentanyl emergency will monitor the blocks around Safeway and Plaid Pantry to see what impact the temporary exemption has (the short answer: It’s already much better, according to neighbors and a recent visit). Meanwhile, Amanda Dalton, CEO of the Northwest Grocery Association, says her group will propose a Bottle Bill “modernization plan” to lawmakers, including a public safety waiver like the one Safeway got.

“Our grocery retail members have experienced uncomfortable and unsafe interactions as a result of operating bottle returns at their stores,” Dalton says

In a March 3 email to city commissioners, Ken Thrasher, a retired CEO of Fred Meyer and current chairman of the Northwest Community Conservancy, one of the people who first called attention to the issue, urged further action to break the cycle for fentanyl users. “Get cash out of the system and help businesses and their employees retain their jobs in an already unhealthy business climate,” Thrasher wrote. “We aren’t asking to eliminate the Bottle Bill; we are only asking to reform it.”

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