Pandemic sparks boom in bottle redemption centers and beer sales


Sorted beer bottles are seen in a bin at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, in Menands, N.Y. The organization has restarted their Empties for Animals program, which takes in donated returnable bottles and cans. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)

ALBANY — COVID-19 has meant boom times for bottle recyclers. With many supermarkets shuttering their bottle return bins, people are seeking out specialized redemption centers and beverage stores to cash in on their empties.

At the same time, however, there are worries that far more empty beer cans, soda bottles and other returnable containers are lying around gathering dust or heading to landfills than is usually the case.

“We’re seeing two to three times the amount that we normally do,” said Leanne Mackey, of Mackey’s bottle and can redemption center on Bradford Street in Albany. “The lines are there before we open until after we close.”

It’s the same situation at Oliver’s beverage store on Colvin Avenue, which sells beer but also accepts empties at a counter operated by the Tomra recycling company.

“The phone calls are continuous and there is a line every day,” said manager Kevin O’Connor.

People who might normally bring nickel-deposit cans and bottles to their local supermarket are unable to do so in many instances. That’s because a number of chains have closed their container-return areas amid worries about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has temporarily halted enforcement of the state’s bottle bill, which mandates that retailers like supermarkets accept the empties and pay for them.

Those businesses that are currently accepting the empties are consequently seeing a jump in business, with lines often running out to the street. Adding to the lines, and to the wait that people endure to redeem their bottles and cans, are the six-foot distance rules that centers are imposing and limits on how many people can enter a shop at a given time.

Despite the rush to redemption centers, environmentalists and others, including those in the industry, believe the pandemic shutdown has led to lots of stockpiling or simply discarding of empty cans and bottles.

The Container Recycling Institute, a trade association of recyclers, estimates that nearly 52 billion bottles and cans so far this year have been “landfilled, littered or incinerated,” when many could be recycled. They are also urging consumers to rinse their empties so they don’t start to smell while awaiting recycling.

Amid this image of garages filling with malodorous bags of empty beer cans, a consortium of environmental groups this week urged the state DEC to tell retailers to once again start accepting the empties, which typically fetch a nickel a piece. The group is also urging the state to start enforcing the state’s new single use plastic bag ban. That law went into effect on March 1 but the state has said it would wait until June 15 on enforcement. Retailers worried about contamination on reusable bags began offering single use plastic or paper bags amid the pandemic.

“Many consumers, having already paid the five-cent deposit, are stockpiling returnable containers at home. Social distancing must be established at the container return areas at stores, just as it has been done at check-out lines,” reads the letter signed by Beyond Plastics, the NRDC, NYPIRG, the Hudson Riverkeeper and more than a dozen others.

DEC on Wednesday said they expect that by June 3, retailers should re-start their redemption operations.

“We expect facilities across the state to take the necessary steps to resume redemption responsibilities and be in compliance once again no later than June 3,” the agency said in a prepared statement.

New York is among 10 states with bottle bills that require consumers to pay a deposit on bottles and cans, which can be redeemed when they are brought back. Many consumers bring them to supermarkets where they can feed them into automated machines that spit out a receipt for the redemption amount.

That’s what has halted at many stores.

The rush to open redemption centers is also an indication of the financial desperation that people are in.

O’Connor said people are coming from far and wide and some are laden with numerous large bags, suggesting they are doing this more for the money than the recycling aspect.

And with lines that can take several hours, some customers simply give away their bags to those who look like they really need the cash.

“There are so many people out of work,” remarked Mackey.

Her center offers six cents per returnable rather than a nickel in hopes that gives her a competitive edge over supermarkets that offer a nickel. That may also help them keep some new customers once the pandemic is lifted.

For now, the redemption centers are processing the empties as fast as they can.

And establishments like Oliver’s, which also sells beer, are seeing a jump in beverage sales as well as redemptions.

“People don’t have anything else to do and the bars are closed,” “O’Connor said.


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