Customers lugging empty cans and bottles back to grocery stores to reclaim deposits are finding in many cases they still can’t refund empties there even though an exemption for retailers ordered earlier in the coronavirus pandemic by the governor has expired.
Fareway, for instance, announced its Iowa locations will not accept containers for redemption. Instead, its stores have posted lists of independent redemption centers close to each location.
Its locations in southwest Cedar Rapids and Marion have partnered with the Can Shed recycling center to take the empties instead,
“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 company announced.
In the early days of the pandemic in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a sweeping emergency order March 17, closing or restricting businesses and gatherings. The proclamation also gave retailers a reprieve from taking back bottles and cans under Iowa’s 1979 bottle bill.
Grocers long have opposed the requirement as unsanitary and have tried so far without success to persuade legislators to change the law.
But Reynolds’ exemption expired Sunday, putting the bottle bill back in to full effect.
The only way a retailer was allowed to not take back bottles and cans for a refund was if it had an off-site redemption center approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The store must post a certificate issued by the state that identifies the redemption center, its location and its hours.
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Getting those approvals is exactly what stores and the Can Shed have been doing in the Corridor. The Can Shed said its four locations have been approved or expect to be approved by the state for a total of 17 retailers in the Corridor.
Hy-Vee Public Relations Director Christina Gayman said its locations throughout the state will accept containers for redemption. However, its stores in southwest Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha and Iowa City have partnered with the Can Shed to take the empties. Hy-Vee partnered with Center Redemption in Dubuque.
The supermarket chain obtained waivers from the Iowa DNR to work with the outside redemption centers, a process Gayman said took several months.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for several months in those markets to make sure that we follow the law so that we would be prepared when this restriction was lifted,” she said.
Troy Willard, owner and manager of the Can Shed, said the recycler has between 1,500 and 1,800 people turning in containers between all its locations every day.
The Cedar Rapids (4121 16th Ave. SW) and Iowa City (611 Hollywood Blvd.) locations closed in mid-March and began slowly opening in mid-May. The Marion location (370 44th St.) opened permanently July 2 and the newest shop in Hiawatha (1485 Hawkeye Dr.) opened Monday. All locations are open six days a week and accept aluminum cans and plastic and glass bottles with an Iowa refund stamp.
Each partnership will last at least a year, Willard said, with the hopes of continuing.
“Time will tell,” Willard said. “We’ll see how it works out for the both of us and go forward from there.”
While working with a redemption center might bring relief to grocery stores, it doesn’t necessarily make things easier for people trying to bring their cans and bottles in.
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Marion resident Ron Williams began taking containers to the Marion Can Shed when it opened, but found the process lengthy and confusing compared with what he did at the store.
Can Shed locations in Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha have installed reverse vending machines like those at stores, but Williams said it was too busy.
“I stow them (containers) in the back of the car and drive by every once and a while and see if I can get in line, but I haven’t been able to do that yet,” Williams said.
Willard said the company has tried to merge the process seen at grocery stores and its own processes that include bulk returns to make things easier.
“We’ve been trying to be very interactive with our customers as they’re coming in ... explaining all their options to them so they can pick their experiences going forward a little bit better each time,” Willard said.
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