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Support sought for mandatory beverage container fees

Minnesota needs a push if it is to reach an 80 percent goal by 2012 to recycle beverage containers, say two young people who want a mandatory refund fee put on containers.

"We wanted to do something in public policy and recycling," says Ben Olson, who with Sarah Heuer operate the Web site

"We took a look at the beverage recycling issue," said Olson of Maple Grove, Minn. "Our current recycling rate is at about 35 percent for beverage containers."

And industry-led volunteer initiative isn't in the offing, he said. A second option is a mandatory deposit fee placed on beverage containers, which 11 other states do.

Heuer of Fairmont, Minn., attended graduate school in Iowa, a state which has had mandatory deposit fees since the late 1970s.

"It has had popular support," said Heuer, who with Olson last week were visiting newspapers across the state.

"We got interested in this whole campaign, this whole process, because our recycling rate for beverage containers is 35 percent," she said, "which doesn't seem like enough to us. They are so easily recyclable if you just do your part."

States that do have mandatory deposit fees have recycling rates in the high 70 to 90 percent recycling rates, Heuer said.

Olson and Heuer are supporting a bill authored by Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, which would levy a 10-cent deposit fee on beverage containers, refundable when the container is returned.

The bill covers beverage containers from soda and water bottles to beer containers to distilled spirits or wine bottles. A recycling refund value of not less than 10 cents would be placed on containers. Unclaimed refunds would go into an environmental fund.

The bill, introduced a year ago, remains in the House Environment Policy and Oversight Committee. A companion bill, which has both Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Tom Bakk and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller as co-sponsors, lies in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee.

The mandatory deposit fee "might be the only way to drastically increase our recycling rates," Heuer said.

Half of unclaimed refunds would go to counties to kick start or reinvigorate recycling efforts such as curbside recycling, Olson said. "Hopefully a community like Bemidji under our bill would actually get a new injection of funds to help them restart curbside recycling for newspapers and cardboard, or if you didn't want to bring them in, beverage containers."

Redemption centers could use automated reverse vending machines, Olson said. A machine at a grocery store would allow bottles and cans to be inserted, and receipt would be printed that the consumer can bring into the store for cash or credit toward grocery purchases.

"You don't have to take the label off," Heuer said. "You can redeem it with the label on. They have to be clean, but not actually rinsed unless they are excessively dirty or sticky. It's actually pretty convenient."

Bottles up to three liters would be accepted.

Unclaimed refunds are estimated at $90 million a year at an 80 percent recycling rate, Olson said.

An information hearing on the bill will be held in a couple of weeks, Heuer said. "This year we're just trying to build support across the board. We're not necessarily trying to push it through this year. We're surprised at the traction it has made already this year."

Heuer said she and Olson met in college and visited one day after Heuer returned from graduate school in Iowa. "We were talking about wanting to make a difference, and it was sort of spontaneous."

Associations representing the beverage industry are expected to fight the measure, Olson said.

The beverage industry was asked to come up with voluntary ways of reaching the 80 percent goal, "but there's been no progress made," Heuer said. "It seems like this is the way to do it."