Richard Chambers: Father of the Bottle Bill

My home state of Oregon just celebrated its 160th birthday this month, while also receiving an A+ in a subject that helps to define the character and culture of this beautiful land: recycling.  A report issued earlier this month indicated that in 2018, 90 percent of all cans and bottles sold in Oregon were returned to be used again. This is double the national average and means that over two billion cans and bottles were recycled in Oregon last year.  This an amazing achievement to be very proud of, which all started about 50 years ago because of the efforts and persistence of one man: Richard Chambers.

Richard Chambers was the epitome of what it meant to be an Oregonian in the middle of the 20th century.  A hiker, kayaker, and lover of the outdoors who embraced the beauty of the lands he lived in and loved the most.   He was born and raised in Salem.  He dropped out of college after a year.  He then joined the Navy, but that didn’t last long. After receiving a violation, he punched an officer in the face.  Needless to say, Richard and the Navy parted ways shortly thereafter.  He went to work selling lumber in Salem, got married, and had three kids.   All the while he continued his passion for the outdoors, and began sharing it with his children.

Each time Chambers went to enjoy the natural beauty and majesty of Oregon, he became more and more perturbed by the amount of trash he saw.  It was mostly in the form of cans and bottles.  He began picking up the trash along the trails, and in the lakes, rivers, and streams.  He would come home with a large sack of garbage in each hand.  At the time it was commonplace for someone to finish drinking a soda, and simply throw it down no matter where they were.  Researchers estimated that about 40 percent of all litter came in the form of bottles and cans.  Oregon, like every other state in the Union had no bottle and can return law.

One morning in 1969, Chambers went for an early morning walk along the beach, then returned to his families cabin.  While reading the newspaper, he learned about a group of activists in British Columbia who were pushing for legislation to ban non-returnable bottles and cans.  Chambers called his friend, Oregon state representative Paul Hanneman and the two began plotting a strategy to introduce similar legislation in Oregon.  They proposed a bill which would require a five cent deposit on every can or bottle used for the purposed of drinking beer and soda.

Chambers began a relentless campaign to push the bill through.  He wrote daily letters to state legislators asking them for support.  He would always use wild font of a variety of colors, unique stationary,  and oversized envelopes to get the attention of the lawmakers.  He met ardent opposition from bottling companies, who said it would be too costly and drive hundreds of Oregon workers to the unemployment lines.  Grocers also complained that the cost and inconvenience would cause significant damage to their industry.  Although Governor Tom McCall supported the bill, he was hesitant to throw his full weight behind it as he thought there were several more important priorities at the time.   When the bill was under consideration, Chambers brought dozens of witnesses in to testify.  He had a river guide describe the grotesque plague of garbage in Oregon’s water.  A farmer testified that he had lost four cows in the past year who had died because of ingesting broken bottles and pieces of cans.  However, the bill did not pass.

Chambers did not quit.  He continued his letter writing campaign, acquired the help of more citizens, circulated petitions, and bent the ear of anyone willing to listen about the issue.  He gained an important ally in John Piacentini, owner of the Plaid Pantry grocery chain.  While nearly every other grocery store owner opposed the bill, Piacentini embraced the idea.  He announced that he would return half a cent to the customer for all cans and bottles returned to his stores.  He challenged Oregonians to “bury me with litter.” They did.  Over the next two weeks, citizens returned over 150,000 cans and bottles to his stores.  Governor McCall had to call in the National Guard to assist with the clean up!

In the next two years, Republican Governor Tom McCall threw more support behind the bill.  His environmental record was already outstanding.  He had passed a bill to protect Oregon’s beaches, promote bicycle use, and a land use planning bill to promote recreation and conservation.  By 1971, McCall was all in on the bottle bill.  When it was debated in the Oregon legislature, it was the target of some of the most intense lobbying of any bill in state history.  The bill passed, and took effect in October of 1972.   Oregon became the first state in the union to have such a bill.  Since then, ten other states have used it as a model to enact their own similar legislation.

Tom McCall pushing for the bottle bill in 1971
Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society

Tom McCall
Chambers and McCall
Photo Credit: Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest

Chambers refused most interviews and pushed away any form of fanfare or praise of him.  He simply wanted to enjoy his state with less litter.  When asked by environmental groups from other states to come help push for bottle and can return laws in their states, he declined.  He said, “I don’t really care what they do in other states.”  He died of Cancer in the late 1970’s, with few people recognizing the passing of a true hero of the state.  His daughter, Vicki Berger successfully ran for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives in 2002.  For over a decade, she championed the cause of recycling and litter control.  She  led the fight to have the bottle bill expanded to include water bottles, and the fight against plastic bags in grocery stores.

In the nearly half century since the original bottle bill was passed, it has been expanded several times.  A huge step was taken in 2017 when the deposit was raised from a nickel to a dime.  This number of bottles and cans successfully returned jumped over 20 percent in the next year.  It makes sense, as the value of a nickel when the law was first enacted in 1972 would now be 28 cents.

Richard Chambers, the stubborn, quirky hiker made the state of Oregon and the United States better because of his determination and perseverance.  He made the word Oregon synonymous with recycling, conservation, and respect for nature.  May his cause, spirit, name and legacy live on.

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Like interesting stories about Oregon history?  Try these:

How George Foreman’s life was turned around in Grants Pass, Oregon:

The Man Who Bombed Oregon:

Vortex One Music Festival:

When Jesse Owens Brought Baseball to Portland:


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