Every week, Lou Forward had the same routine: drive into Carroll, go to the grocery store, stop at the bank and drop off cans at the Carroll Redemption Center.
It had become a lifelong routine of hers, but during her recent visits to Carroll, a “closed” sign has been hung in the window of redemption center, and Forward, a Glidden resident, has gone weeks without redeeming any of her soda cans.
“I was taking in cans every week, just because the ants or anything that builds up,” she said. “It’s just convenient. You come in, you run errands, get your groceries and drop off your cans.”
Like Forward, others have arrived at the redemption center with truckloads of cans only to find it is closed for the day.
But it’s not because the center’s employees are cutting the center’s days short or taking the day off, said Carrie Sapp, the co-owner of the Carroll Redemption Center — they are still hard at work sorting and struggling to get caught up.
“People are bringing in stuff in such big quantities that we got so pushed back, because we are so full,” she said.
Over the past few months, mountains have formed in the back room of the Carroll Redemption Center as the business works to keep up with the surplus of cans that are brought in every week after Denison’s redemption center closed in February and the center in Jefferson changed its return policy to 4 cents a can instead of 5, which according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is illegal to do.
When the cans come in, they first are separated by distributors: Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, Miller Lite, 7UP, Coke and others. Then they are placed in the back room, where they quickly accumulate into towering Pepsi and Busch mounds.
Consumers bring in their cans and bottles to redeem the 5-cent deposit they pay when purchasing a soda or alcoholic beverage from an Iowa grocery store. After the cans are brought into redemption centers, the centers sort the cans and get them ready to be picked up by distributors, which in turn pay the redemption centers 1 cent per can.
In order to create more space, Sapp and her husband, Brad, have begun storing cans on their acreage at an off-site location and have limited customers to bringing in 1,000 cans per day or five big trash bags, which hold about 50 gallons each.
“We’ve always had some off-site storage, but that was always our winter work,” she said. “Now it’s to the point where it’s much more than just winter work.”
Over the past few years, many redemption centers have struggled to keep their businesses open with only the 1-cent return deposit they receive from distributors like Coke or Anheuser-Busch. Consumers who once recycled in Denison now drive to Carroll, and after Jefferson’s redemption center stopped paying the full 5-cent refund, many consumers there also are making the half-hour trek to Carroll’s redemption center.
But Janie Scheuermann, the co-owner of J&K Redemption Center in Jefferson, said they were forced to either change their refund policy or shut down their operation.
Although the 4-cent refund has helped Scheuermann and other centers like Story County Can and Bottle Redemption in Nevada stay afloat, what they are doing is not legal, said Bill Blum, a program planner at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
“That’s illegal,” he said. “They have no authority in the statute to do that.”
Blum cited 455C.2 of the Beverage Containers Control Law, which states, “A refund value of not less than five cents shall be paid by the consumer on each beverage container sold in this state by a dealer for consumption off the premises.”
Scheuermann said she’s aware of the law in reference to her center keeping the extra cent.
“I am not saying that it is legal,” she said. “There is nothing saying in black and white that it’s legal.
“If someone is going to cry over a few cents, then they can take them somewhere else.”
But these redemption centers aren’t totally to blame, Blum said — the 1-cent-per-container profit redemption centers currently earn has remained the same for 40 years.
“The essential issue with the redemption centers is they only get a penny from the distributors,” he said. “They start to steal from their customers when they can’t legally change their compensation.”
Earlier this year, Republican State Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, introduced Senate File 59 — a bill that would increase redemption centers’ profit by increasing the handling fee distributors pay the centers from 1 cent to 2.
This increase may allow other redemption centers around the state to reopen and could allow redemption centers like Scheuermann’s to begin paying the 5-cent deposit once again.
“If we get the increase, we will go back to paying a nickel,” Scheuermann said. “That’s why so many have closed. If we get a raise, then maybe there will be more open, then Carroll won’t be so swamped and Perry won’t be swamped.”
But redemption centers aren’t the only ones who want to see the bottle bill amended.
Consumers such as Forward have been contacting local representatives like State Rep. Brian Best, R-Glidden, to stress its importance.
“I think it needs to continue,” Forward said. “Our roadside ditches have never looked as good as they do. They are not littered with as much garbage. They’re not littered with cans. You see other states that don’t have can bills, and the roadsides are littered.”
If the bill is passed during the next legislative session, which begins in January, Brad Sapp said, it could be a game-changer for the Carroll business.
“The goal would be to get it raised, because we are having such trouble finding help as it is,” he said.
But Mari Vanderwal, the owner of Story County Can and Bottle in Nevada, who has been paying a 4-cent refund since 2006, said she is unsure a 1-cent increase is enough.
“I think it would help, but I am not sure one penny would be enough anymore,” she said. “I am paying barely above minimum wage. We’re struggling just to keep people working.”
Vanderwal said she urges legislators to start fighting to help increase the small profit Iowa redemption centers currently bring in.
“If we can make a living off of it, I think there will be a lot of redemption centers opening up,” she said. “If you look at the thousands of cans my place does a week, they would be in your ditch or in the landfill.”
Clay Adams, the executive director of WESCO Industries in Denison, which operated the Denison Redemption Center before it closed last winter, said the 1-cent increase would have helped keep his center going a few years ago, but today, redemption centers are needing about 3 cents back from distributors for each can to employ enough staff and keep the facility going.
After Denison’s center closed, he said, some people began driving to Carroll, but others have stopped recycling altogether.
“I know a lot of people have complained to us that they are throwing (cans and bottles) away,” he said. “I know Carroll picked up a lot of our business, but I know some people are simply throwing them away now.”
Right now, Best said, the bottle bill and the proposed 1-cent increase is still up in the air.
“I think the most important thing is we have to figure out a way that the redemption centers make some kind of profit,” he said. “I think the citizens of the state really want to see the bottle bill continue.”
Best said Carroll is fortunate its redemption center is still open and wants to ensure it stays that way, he said.
“I think the extra penny is the only way I think it is going to work,” he said. “Everyone has had different ways, but I think that is the way we have to go. We have waited too long.”
The Carroll Redemption Center will be closed to the public from Sept. 23 to 27 to catch up on work.