Illustration by Levi Hastings

THE EXPANSION of Oregon's landmark "bottle bill" over the past few years—meant to pump up the state's decades-old can-and-bottle redemption program—seemed to offer something for everyone.

Collectors can now redeem water bottles for five cents apiece, along with bottles and cans that once held beer and soda. By 2018, that haul will include things like energy drink cans. And, as a bonus, if redemption rates statewide remain below 80 percent for a second consecutive year, that nickel will rise to a dime.

Major grocery stores, required by state law to accommodate those collectors, also got something for their trouble. To help them cope with the expected new volume a few years from now, stores were given permission to invest in regional redemption centers—freeing them from the headaches of managing long lines and maintaining uncooperative machines in various corners of their parking lots.

But with Portland's second such center on track to open by the end of this year, it's looking like that grand bargain might actually leave some people out. Homeless canners who work a wide swath of gentrifying North and Northeast Portland told the Mercury they worry they won't be able to easily reach the new facility—out near the Lowe's in Delta Park—with their shopping carts.

And when major stores nearby either stop or dramatically cut back redemption service, those canners say they'll either have to stop, make do with even less money each day, or take their operations to different parts of town.

"I don't know how I'll get there. There's no real bus that goes out there, and you can't take a cart on the bus anyway," says Patrick Gann, 46, waiting in line, with two carts, at the Fred Meyer in St. Johns on a recent weekday morning. "I'll move somewhere else. That's probably part of what's going on. They're trying to get rid of part of the homeless population."

The Delta Park redemption center would be Oregon's 10th—but just the second in Portland proper, joining another facility out near NE 122nd and Glisan. The company behind it, the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC), is working hand in hand with the region's grocery lobbyists. Five large stores, so far, have signed on to help pay for it.

Four of those stores—the Safeway at NE MLK and Ainsworth, the Safeway on Hayden Island, the Rite-Aid on N Denver and Lombard, and the Fred Meyer on N Interstate—are within a two-mile radius of the center and are allowed to stop service altogether. The other, the Fred Meyer in St. Johns, is about three miles away as the crow flies. It will cut its daily redemptions down from 144 per person to just 24—or $1.20 a day.

Options could narrow further if New Seasons comes aboard. The chain has three stores in the center's umbrella—in Concordia, in Arbor Lodge, and on North Williams (with one more planned near St. Johns). Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, says that's been discussed. A spokeswoman, however, says New Seasons hasn't decided whether it will participate.

"There's always a concern about change, what happens to people, and how people access it. But we haven't seen any slowdowns," Gilliam told the Mercury—playing down the impact on homeless Portlanders and emphasizing, instead, what he and others see as an expansion of convenience for all kinds of can collectors.

The new centers will take 350 containers per person—more than twice what stores currently accept. They also have on-site staffing and upgraded equipment expected to cut down on the laborious, time-consuming slog of feeding bottles and cans, one at a time, into grocery-store machines notorious for breaking down. At two separate Fred Meyers one morning, machines were out of order.

Most attractive, Gilliam says, is a service in which collectors create accounts, buy special bags with barcodes, and then drop off their containers to be counted whenever they want. The day's booty is credited to those accounts and made available through a special card.

"It's a better deal for everyone," he says.

But the center's supporters also allow that many of those refinements are meant to entice new collectors who might be turned off by the chaos and mess at grocery stores' current bottle rooms.

"There's a whole section of the population who just don't want to participate anymore," says Cherilyn Bertges, OBRC's communications and outreach manager. "The floors are sticky. The machines are broken down. It stinks. We're seeing people come back and participate who haven't in a long time."

The push to put a cleaner, brighter face on can collection isn't just about improving customer service, however. Gilliam says redemption rates remain below 80 percent statewide, putting Oregon (and its grocery stores) on the precipice of having to pay 10 cents a container for the first time.

"What does that do to volume?" he asks. "We just don't know."

Eventually, grocers hope to fund up to 45 redemption centers statewide, but no one can say how many will wind up in Portland and whether the same scenario looming over North Portland's canners might repeat elsewhere. Bertges, of OBRC, says site selection is an imprecise science, requiring buy-in from enough nearby stores as well as zoning approvals and the blessing of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

Gilliam says a "network" of smaller retailers will still accept redemptions in North Portland—albeit with a cap of 24 containers daily, forcing collectors to go from store to store.

"They'll get more efficient," he says of homeless canners, "like anybody else."

That kind of adjustment may not be possible for everyone, some collectors worry.

"How are you going to push a cart up all that way," asked one woman, pushing a cart in St. Johns, who asked not to be identified. "A lot of us are elderly or handicapped. I feel sorry for them. This is a lifeline."