MUSCATINE, Iowa — When you toss that empty Pepsi can into a recycling bin it goes through many hands.
No one in Muscatine knows that better than William Taylor, executive director of Crossroads Inc. The agency sorts approximately 9 million cans annually.
Crossroads announced last month that its can-sorting operation will cease after Oct. 31. The decision did not come in haste.
Board members say Crossroads, a non-profit United Way-funded agency at 1424 Houser St., has been forced out of the can-sorting business. They blame Iowa’s Bottle Bill, passed in 1978, and lawmakers who they say have failed to change the law to help create income for companies and organizations that collect, sort and sell aluminum cans.
Businesses that use Crossroads’ services to pick up and sort cans will be looking for a new collector or a place to sort the hundreds of cans Crossroads has dealt with each day.
“We hate to see any business suffer because of this and I feel sorry for everybody in the chain of events that it will affect but we can’t subsidize a bad law,” Taylor said.
Taylor said the outdated law has a fixed handling fee of 1 cent per can, which hasn’t been changed for nearly 30 years. Because of inflation, the increase in gas prices, the minimum wage and virtually every aspect of business operation since the bill was enacted, Crossroads is budgeted to lose $155,000 in 2008.
Effect of the law
Iowa’s Beverage Container Deposit Law was enacted in 1978. Soft drinks, wine and liquor were added in 1979, and now it includes any sealed glass, plastic or metal bottle, can, jar or carton containing a carbonated or alcoholic beverage. There is a 5-cent deposit on each can, but an additional
1-cent handling fee goes to the retailer or redemption center that sorts the cans for the distributor. Iowa redemption centers have pushed state representatives for years to increase that handling fee — to no avail.
“Remember what you paid for a car or gas or anything else in 1979. Now imagine trying to live on that same income,” Taylor said. “I’m getting paid the same as I was in ’79.”
Taylor said it’s preposterous that the state would regulate the can sorters’ income by freezing the handling fee at once cent per can, but then increasing the minimum wage multiple times over the past three decades.
Crossroads loses 2 cents for every penny it receives, Taylor said.
“If you have the can, you’re out the nickel,” Taylor said, adding that a distributor is the only party that benefits from the nickel.
The business is currently storing more than $33,000 worth of cans in giant bags piled all around the warehouse and in a storage building. As long as those cans are in the warehouse, Crossroads is out the nickel it paid for each can.
Taylor said he has a great relationship with area distributors and his current problem is not their fault — but the state should recognize that the distributor is the only entity that benefits from the nickel deposit.
“All of those nickels for unclaimed cans go to the distributor. I have nothing against the distributor because they can’t change this law either, but technically, if the distributor doesn’t pick up the cans, it doesn’t have to pay the nickel and it gets to keep its penny for handling.”
Can redemption is a dirty job. Workers wear gloves, aprons and hearing protection for good reason. The constant crinkling noise of cans, the pungent smell and the garbage and bugs that come down the conveyor belt can make for unappealing and sometimes unhealthy situations.
“You wouldn’t believe the bugs we find, hypodermic needles and even condoms. It’s like a trash can. Some rinse out their cans, but most don’t,” Taylor said.
Crossroads makes a mere $90,000 annually on can sorting and that money has to be used for the clients, staff, electricity, gas, vehicle maintenance and every other aspect of the operation.
Sorting the cans will become a problem for businesses such as the Bullpen Sports Bar and Rumors bar, both of Muscatine.
“I have no idea what we are going to do come October,” said Ro Frye, Bullpen manager. “There would be so many bags to store, but even if we have room to store them what is really going to be a pain is that there’s no room to sort them.”
Mike’s Hilltop Tap has another business, Iowa Can Co. of Walcott, pick up its cans.
“We just bag them. It’s very convenient because they pick them up,” said manager Shelly Brus.
Brad Heuvelmann, operations manager for Fleck Sales Co. in West Burlington, Iowa, is a Muscatine distributor of Miller products and a variety of imported beers. He said Fleck delivers product and picks up the empty cans from its Muscatine customers. The distributor also picks up cans from Crossroads.
“What will happen is the third party won’t be involved. We’ll still pick up empties but they’ll have to be sorted by the seller,” he said. “That’s the way it’s done generally across the state. It’s not an unusual circumstance. Some of the redemption centers have made it easier by eliminating that step.”
Bill Wallace, president of Vanguard Distributing Corp., said there are only about a dozen can-sorting facilities statewide because the job is no longer profitable.
Vanguard primarily distributes Anheuser-Busch products across Eastern Iowa, including Muscatine.
“My gas bill used to be $1,000 a week and now it’s $4,000,” he said, illustrating the effects of a changing world on all businesses that use gasoline.
Distributors will only pick up their own cans because they will lose a nickel by picking up another company’s cans. Heuvelmann explained that if he pays a nickel for his another distributors cans, then they’re out the nickel.
“We don’t profit and it doesn’t do us any good,” he said. “Aluminum now goes for about 69 cents a pound, which is a lot of cans. You’re lucky to brake even.”
He added that if the distributor gets back 95 percent of its cans then it can afford to pay the one cent handling fee and break even.
Wallace said that it would be a better solution for Iowa to get rid of the Bottle Bill and use the value of the aluminum to stimulate curbside recycling in the state, something that is otherwise unaffordable because of the high cost
Taylor agrees with Wallace. He said the best plan would be to allow the state to take over the can deposit or drop it all together and allow agencies to buy the aluminum for scrap metal value or start curbside recycling.
Taylor is looking forward to the future and being able to make more room for a profitable venture at Crossroads.
“I’m not going to let this Bottle Bill bankrupt the company,” he said. “We will move forward with other operations and come out just fine in the end.”
Reporter contact information
Melissa Regennitter: 563-262-0526, or firstname.lastname@example.org