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Returnable rush: Stores accepting cans, bottles again for first time in months

Patrons chat outside Elmer’s County Market Tuesday morning while waiting their turn to return bottles and cans (Photo by Deborah Prescott, Escanaba Daily Press)

ESCANABA — Stores across Michigan started accepting 10-cent returnable containers once again Monday — much to the delight of customers.

Pat’s Foods IGA in Gladstone has seen an influx of returnables.

“People are lined up outside now,” said Pat’s Bookkeeper Mary Cayer. “I received a phone call this morning at 6:15 a.m. asking if we were taking returnables in. It’s been very busy.”

Cayer said the store is well staffed and so it has handled the volume of returns very well. Staff wear masks and gloves when working with returnables and use hand sanitizer when back inside the store.

Patrons are asked to keep six feet apart from each other while returning containers, and only two people are allowed in at a time.

“Two people are allowed in the bottle area at a time,” said Cayer. “We might have to close it down for cleaning a couple times, depending on how busy it is. Our hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., but temporarily we close at 9 p.m. to clean for the next morning.”

Cayer said distributors were in the store Monday picking up what had been returned.

Pat’s is allowing customers to redeem 10-cent bottles and cans up to $25.

Joe Skellenger, owner of Joe’s One Stop in Rock, is allowing customers to bring in $10 worth of returnables at a time.

“We started taking back returnables yesterday. After looking at the point-of-sales we received 1,400 cans or bottles, double what our average would be pre-COVID,” said Skellenger. “We are enforcing our $10 maximum limit per day, per family, and making a point to count all the returnables while the customers wait.”

Skellenger asks patrons to have patience while the staff do their work as needed. Any wet, dirty returnables may be given back to the customer.

“Michigan law allows us to get dry open containers. If the containers are in a black plastic bag the worker may return it back to the customer, for instance. We cannot accept returnables we don’t sell, the distributors won’t take them from us.”

Skellenger recommends his staff wear gloves and use hand sanitizer when working in the bottle return area. He provides his staff large bins to empty any bags into so his employees don’t have to reach into a bag they cannot see into.

“It’s hard to realize as a consumer that returnables only cost retailers money,” noted Skellenger. “We never break even on returns. It always costs us money. We buy supplies to put the bottles and cans in for the distributors and pay an hourly wage for a worker.”

Since late March, Michiganders have had to keep their 10-cent returnables after an executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stated bottle return facilities were not essential. Approximately $50 million was in limbo until Monday. Distributors went back to picking up returned aluminum, plastic and glass bottles and cans from markets. Michigan was the last state to restart redeeming items.

Local resident Penny Simonson is using the money from her collection to take a trip.

“I kept my bottles and cans along a wall in my carport,” said Simonson. “The money I receive from returning these items will pay my expenses for my trip to Lower Michigan this coming weekend.”

One patron drove 50 miles to Elmer’s to return his beer bottles for cash that will go to more of the same. Another patron said she stored her bottles and cans in her garage and had given some to a homeless man she knows.

Elmer’s General Manager Rod Stende said they received double the normal amount of returnables the first day.

“We will try to maintain this level if the vendors are able to pick up their bottles and cans on a timely basis,” said Stende.

According to Stende, Elmer’s only has to redeem 140% of the volume they did in the previous year.

“We will do more if we have the storage, otherwise we will have to shut down until we catch up,” he said.

Elmer’s emptied, cleaned and sanitized the bottle return area beforehand and scheduled someone just for the bottle return area. Stende said they want to give everyone a chance to return stored containers so Elmer’s is allowing a one day limit of $25.

Only two customers are allowed inside the bottle return area at a time. Stende asks patrons to keep the items in bags and boxes before placing them in the machine.

“Please do not empty cans and bottles into the shopping carts,” said Stende. “Please keep them in bags until you put them in the machines.”

Staff at Elmer’s wear face masks and gloves while working in the bottle return area and touch the containers as little as possible.

“The plastic bottles and cans are crushed by the machines and deposited into bags,” said Stende. “The bags are tied and put into storage. Employees only touch the returnable bottles that have to be sorted.”

Every store worker in the bottle and can return areas appreciate clean, dry containers, and patience from customers until the collection of returnables are back to normal. Contact your store to find out what policies they have in place before bringing containers to the store.

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