Coronavirus concerning grocers

This at first appears to be a recycled story

Fareway has announced it will not follow state law by accepting empty pop and alcohol bottles and cans. The law says they must, but the grocery store chain said it won’t.

“Effective with the expiration of the Iowa Governor’s Emergency Declaration on July 25th, Fareway will not be accepting containers for redemption in its Iowa stores,” according to a statement issued July 24 by Fareway Stores president and CEO Reynolds Cramer.

That was the day before the executive order issued by Gov. Kim Reynolds ended a waiver for stores on accepting recyclables as part of a law passed in 1978. Fareway waited until the deadline to make its position known.

“Health authorities continue to advise that COVID-19 and other viruses are transmitted through respiratory droplets,” Cramer said. “Accepting potentially contaminated containers inside our stores presents a great risk of harm to the health and safety of our employees and customers. In addition, Iowa law requires grocery stores to meet health and food safety guidelines for all employees and customers. Allowing used containers to be returned in our stores puts our employees and customers at risk, and runs counterproductive to the many safety and sanitation initiatives we have implemented in order to keep people safe.”

The science on that claim is uncertain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is no evidence these containers pose any risk of infection.

It’s also worth noting that Fareway doesn’t require customers to wear masks in its stores. If COVID-19 concerns are such an issue that it is willing to flaunt state law, you would assume masks would be mandated as well.

As we noted, this is not a new development. In 2004-05, Fareway refused to accept cans and bottles even if there was no nearby recycling center. Iowa attorney general Tom Miller warned the company it had to comply with the law or face a court fight.

Fareway backed down and adhered to the law.

Now, it once again claims it will not follow the rules. Miller, in his 25th year as attorney general, will have to discuss this with the company.

Fareway is at the head of this fight, but other stores want the law changed as well. The Iowa Grocery Industry Association asked for the temporary reprieve from collecting cans and bottles and would like to see the law discarded. Legislative efforts to do that have so far failed.

Fareway said it will direct its customers to local recyclers and said it wanted to “encourage local communities to focus their redemption on supporting these businesses and/or area nonprofits that provide outside collection bins for donation.”

Perhaps that is the answer here. Can we move away from requiring stores to accept cans and bottles and shift the chore to recycling centers?

Right now, people pay a nickel and get it back when they return the containers. Handlers get 1 cent each. If that figure was doubled, along with some other incentives and financial assistance, we could shift this task to designated areas.

Under state law, a store can use an approved redemption center that’s certified by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in place of accepting cans and bottles at its store.

Maybe that is a way forward, especially during this current time of grave concern over the coronavirus. We don’t want to stop recycling.

The fact is, Iowans like the current law. A 2018 poll showed it had strong support from Republicans, Democrats and independents. Many even supported expanding the law.

According to the DNR, 71 percent of cans and bottles are returned. Iowans know recycling keeps material out of landfills. It also encourages people to turn it in for money or donate to a charitable group, keeping Iowa clean and reducing litter.

Recycling provided 870 jobs in 2018 and put a few coins in pockets of people willing to turn in the bottles and cans. In short, recycling works.

For one thing, we need more recycling centers. There were about 500 at the peak in the 1980s. Now there are fewer than 100.

Fareway has built many stores since 1978. It could create a designated area for recycling or it could work with local communities to provide a recycling center in every community where it has a store.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things in our world, some permanently, others, we hope, temporarily. Perhaps evolving how Iowa recycles cans and bottles will become a change that worked out for consumers and stores.

It’s worth taking a fresh look at this issue. Let’s not merely recycle old arguments — it’s time to consider a new approach.