PORTLAND, ORE. - A public interest group is seeking grass-roots support to expand Oregon's bottle deposit law to cover beverages not sold widely when the law was enacted in 1971. In late June, the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group began soliciting the signatures of enough registered Oregon voters - more than 70,000 are required - to get an initiative on the November 1996 statewide ballot. The group is looking to extend the reach of the bottle law to include all beverage containers except those filled with dairy products or substitutes, distilled spirits or liquor, and wine with more than 8 percent alcohol.
The current law requires a nickel deposit, and refunds when empties are returned, on only beer and carbonated beverage containers. Since the law's inception, sales of noncarbonated drinks, such as juice, bottled water, iced tea, Snapple, Gatorade and other similar beverages, have exploded.
Phil Keisling, Oregon's secretary of state, approved the language of the proposed initiative, but a last-minute appeal by the Association of Oregon Food Industries must yet be decided by the Oregon Supreme Court.
The association has objected to the use of the words ``bottle bill'' in the title of the initiative on grounds that that language does not meet the requirement of neutrality for ballot measures.
The 1971 law is widely credited with ensuring what many view as the state's relatively pristine landscape and is considered a legacy of the late Tom McCall, the popular Oregon governor who helped engineer its passage.
``The bottle bill is obviously popular in the state,'' said Steve McCoid, president of the food industry association. ``It has a warm and fuzzy image for voters and that could lead them to have a positive image of what's going on when they read that question on the ballot without considering everything else. And we don't think that's right.''
A court hearing is scheduled July 11. The collection of petition signatures cannot begin until the issue is resolved.
Opposition to the bottle law is based in large part on the handling costs it imposes on grocers, who spend about 3 cents per container - or roughly $50 million a year - to handle and store recyclable cans and bottles, McCoid said.
``It's a cost that's passed through to Oregonians to deal with roughly about 3 percent of the waste stream, and we don't spend $50 million a year in this state on the other 97 percent, so it's an inefficient way to deal with the issue,'' McCoid said.
He had no estimate yet on what expanding the law would cost.
The public interest group pushing for the ballot issue unsuccessfully sought to get the Oregon Legislature to expand the bottle law during its most recent session.
Group representatives express concern that the state's success in controlling litter and encouraging recycling may be threatened if the bottle law is not expanded.
``In 1994 alone, over 100 million beverage containers were littered or landfilled in Oregon because they didn't fall under the bottle bill,'' according to Jeana Frazzini, citizen outreach director for the initiative campaign.
Bottles covered by the current deposit law are recycled at a 94 percent rate, according to 1994 figures compiled by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.