Seeking Redemption

Neighbors of a proposed West Burnside site for bottle and can returns pop their tops.

Every day, Rob Wolters sees a lot of the raw city life outside his condo at West Burnside Street and Southwest 18th Avenue that he says makes it interesting to live downtown: homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, teens loitering on corners, and even the occasional transient urinating in public.

Wolters, who lives in the Civic Condominiums, says his neighborhood is still one of the roughest, despite millions of dollars in investment in recent years.

But he says one new addition would make it too busy, dirty and dangerous: a new bottle and can redemption center expected to draw 8 million containers a year and, Wolters says, more foot and car traffic than the neighborhood can handle.

"It's going to take it to a level of grittiness that's not going to be pleasant," Wolters says. "I really am upset about it."

The center is planned for the site of the former Gaya Gaya Sushi Restaurant on the wedge of land between West Burnside and Southwest Alder streets, and Southwest 17th and 18th avenues.

The drop would draw bottle and can returns that were once headed for the Fred Meyer across Burnside, as well as two nearby Safeways, one downtown and the other in the Pearl District. It would be the ninth such redemption center in Oregon, as major grocery stores push away shoppers looking to get back the 5-cent deposit they paid for their containers.

The other sites—including one at 12403 Northeast Glisan St.—have all opened with few complaints.

Not this one.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which must approve the facility, has received more than 200 public comments, virtually all of them negative. Many raise objections to the prospect of increased vagrancy and crime caused by transients pushing shopping carts of scavenged empties to the new center.

"It's universally opposed except for those who are promoting it," says Dan Petrusich, former president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League Neighborhood Association.

John Andersen, president of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, a consortium of bottling companies that picks up and recycles containers throughout the state, says a new center on Burnside would not do much to change the current problems posed by homelessness in the area.

"We're not really expanding, we're just changing," Andersen says. For the stores' customers, who must haul their returns elsewhere, he says, "It's just in an environment that we believe is much more controlled and focused on improvement of the experience.” 

The debate highlights not just the impact of one redemption hub but also the changing nature of Oregon's landmark bottle bill as grocers and bottling companies shift the cost, congestion and mess to a handful of central sites.

"These redemption centers are wonderful where everybody drives," says Jerry Powell, editor of Portland-based Resource Recycling newsletters. "The real winner, even though they help pay for it, is the grocer."

The bottle bill, passed in 1971, didn't change much for decades: You paid a 5-cent deposit for each bottle and can at purchase, and the store was required to give you a nickel back when you brought back your empty.

After legislators expanded the law to cover plastic water bottles in 2007, the recycling workload at stores increased. Grocers and bottlers pushed to offer (and pay for) central drop locations away from stores, and persuaded the OLCC in 2010 to let them open trial sites. Lawmakers agreed to expand the plan in 2011.

"It's better for the consumer, it's better for the neighbors," says state Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem), who worked on the compromise and whose father, Richard Chambers, came up with the idea for the bottle bill in the late 1960s. "Anybody who complains about [the Burnside center] first has to go out and visit the ones that are existing. They are not what you envision, in terms of what the grocers have had to deal with in the last 30 or 40 years.” 

Ten states now have mandatory container deposit laws, and as many as seven have similar redemption centers.

The Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative has opened locations, called BottleDrop, in Salem, Bend, Oregon City, Gresham and Wood Village. The sites feature machines that automatically sort and count bottles and cans, and clerks then reimburse for the returns.

At the Northeast Glisan Street center, the whir of 12 bottle collection machines competes with the glass-on-glass clink of rattling bottles. On a recent Sunday, people stood on the sticky floor amid the sour smell of stale beer as they dropped their empties into the machines.

The site, which replaced returns at five nearby grocery stores, takes in 50 million bottles and cans a year—far more than the 30 million BottleDrop officials expected when it opened in August 2013.

Employees say lines often stretch out the door. "As we realized early on, this space really isn't big enough for us," says one employee who asked not to be named.

Car and pedestrian traffic is one reason critics of the Burnside location say they don't want it.

Petrusich, former president of the Goose Hollow neighborhood association, stood outside the Northeast site and watched the flow of cars and people hauling in bottles and cans.

"It's mind-boggling to think that they would put something like that right on Burnside and 17th," Petrusich says. "You're trying to impose a suburban solution on an urban location."

The land where the center would be built had been flagged by the city as a "catalyst" location for redevelopment in the area. Critics now worry the site has too few parking spots—10—to handle the traffic.

Petrusich says he fears the homeless problem around 17th and Burnside will only get worse—he compared the potential problem to Right 2 Dream Too, the homeless camp at Northwest 4th Avenue and Burnside.

He says the neighborhood has begun to transform itself with new development, such as the Civic Condominiums and renovations at Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers and Thorns.

"The bottom line is this: Nobody wants the problem," he says of the grocery stores trying to move their container drops. "They want to export the problem."

Letters of opposition have come into the OLCC from dozens of neighbors, citing concerns about safety and traffic, as well as the board of the Civic condos, the Marathon Taverna, and the Timbers and Thorns.

Ken Puckett, senior vice president of the Timbers and Thorns, told the OLCC it should "hear from the stakeholders who simply don't want other businesses dumping what they don't want on their property onto the doorstep of others." (Calls to Fred Meyer and Safeway were not returned.)

Meanwhile, the OLCC hasn't set a deadline for a final decision on the Burnside location.

Andersen, of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, says he doesn't believe a BottleDrop on West Burnside will cause problems with traffic.

Nor does he think it would change the character of a neighborhood that, as he notes, includes taverns, a McDonald's, a car wash, vacant buildings and a sex shop.

"Do I think there's an area within the state that's too big to be part of [the bottle bill]? No," Andersen says. "Do I think that West Burnside is a neighborhood today where a bottle drop center would not fit? No."

"It's hard to understand," he adds, "how what we're doing for an environmental initiative—one of the longest-standing in this state, and an iconic feature of this state—how that doesn’t fit in this case.” 

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