Thompson: Grocery stores are blocking bottle returns on their own

##Steve Bagwell/News-Register
##Steve Bagwell/News-Register

My effort to redeem six months’ worth of accumulated cans and bottles was thwarted recently.

If you have tried to cash in your bottles, you’ll understand this COVID-related problem. I am going to take you on a journey through state bureaucracy to explore why and offer a possible solution.

As you may have noticed, no facilities in McMinnville are open for can and bottle redemption. All four major grocery stores —  Albertsons, Roth’s, Safeway and WinCo — have shut their redemption centers. And driving to a BottleDrop redemption facility is prohibitive.

When I have asked workers and managers at local grocery stores why they are closed, I got different answers.

Some told me it was due to an order from the Yamhill County Public Health, so I called. No, officials there said. It’s not their doing.

The congenial health department person I talked to said perhaps it was a state Department of Agriculture rule, as the agency’s food safety unit oversees grocery stores. I e-mailed the unit, and within a couple of hours, got a reply from a nice guy suggesting I call him because the answer could be complicated.

I called and we had a friendly chat. He said he would check with his McMinnville region staffer.

A day later, he e-mailed to say his department wasn’t responsible. He suggested I look to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees bottle bill redemption.

I went to the OLCC website, where I discovered that — yes, indeed, — the liquor agency oversees redemptions. None of the grocery store representatives told me that.

The website had a page devoted to which counties are mandated to have stores continue recycling cans and bottles and which are not, based on their COVID risk levels. Stores in the 18 counties at low or moderate risk must keep their return centers open.

In a Dec. 3 news release, the OLCC said it was temporarily waiving that requirement for counties at high and extreme risk — a category currently covering the other 18 counties, including Yamhill. The agency indicated it was allowing them to forgo accepting bottles and cans, but not requiring them to.

In other words, it’s entirely up to those stores whether to make their reverse vending machines available. And the stores in McMinnville have chosen not to serve their customers at this juncture.

I think I understand why, which I will get to.

I e-mailed the OLCC in case I had missed something. When I heard back, the representative person first said the agency was simply following Oregon Health Authority guidance. I asked to be directed to that guidance, and in response was advised the agency actually was following its own guidances, not relying on the OHA.

A note on the OLCC webpage makes clear that stores are not mandated to close their facilities under this “guidance.” Here’s the text:

“Retailers that choose to do so can still accept containers for redemption; there is no mandate that retailers not refuse containers. Even if stores choose not to accept container returns at this time, a 10 cent deposit will still be assessed on the purchase of all eligible beverage containers.”

Bingo! Our grocery store facilities are closed, but not because of the OLCC.

I tried to show one manager this after she insisted her store was under state order to close its redemption facility, but she barely glanced at the OLCC website open on my phone. She then told me it was actually an Oregon Occupational Safety and Health rule, which an employee at the other store seconded.

I could find no such rule on the state OSHA site. But I did find the agency’s latest 54-page COVID regulation — “COVID-19 Public Health Emergency in All Oregon Workplaces, 437-001-0744 Rule Addressing COVID-19 Workplace Risks.”

Appendix 2 of that regulation references retail stores. But it addresses only physical distancing and signage.

Physical distancing limits the number of customers so workers and the public can maintain safe distances. But this is not a mandate to close; it is a requirement that stores protect workers and customers by mandating distancing, which they were already doing.

Both Albertsons and Safeway maintain return locations inside their stores. So anyone walking through the store would be no more or less protected than ordinary shoppers and clerks.

Perhaps the size of the recycling rooms matters. It would be a simple matter then to limit the number of people allowed in the room at any one time. Safe distancing self-enforcement seems to work elsewhere in other parts of the stores, with the help of floor decals.

The bottle return at WinCo is located in an open-air breezeway, so even less in need of regulation. And the reverse vending machines at Roth’s are completely in the open, outside the store.

The latest Centers for Disease Control guidance is that people need not even wear masks outdoors. So why are Roth’s machines turned off? After all, these are the safest facilities in McMinnville.

And indeed, Roth’s posts the OLCC notice on its machines, thereby acknowledging that closing them is a decision it has made on its own, not a state mandate. It’s almost as if the stores jointly agreed to take advantage of an enforcement reprieve in order to shut these operations.

It seems that given an excuse to close their redemption facilities, our local grocery stores will. That saves them money, as they don’t have to use staff time to clear jams, unload the recyclables and conduct cleanups.

Clearly, closing during COVID is not a state-required action. The stores need to stop blaming state agencies. They need to come clean and acknowledge they chose on their own to close their redemption facilities.

I get it. These rooms in stores are sometimes messy with sticky floors and the stale beer odor of a frat house after a weekend bacchanal. They scream low scale when the stores are trying to project an upscale aura. And homeless people pushing overflowing carts of bottles and cans down the aisle can be a turnoff for shoppers.

But it should not be lost on the stores that their regular shoppers also return cans and bottles. Closing the redemption facilities is not customer-friendly.

Is there a solution? Perhaps.

The OLCC also oversees a network of BottleDrop redemption centers in Oregon, and they remain open.

These centers are not located in stores, rather standalone locations. But the ones nearest to McMinnville are in Salem, Tigard and Forest Grove, all 20 to 25 miles away.

The state needs to locate a BottleDrop Redemption Center in McMinnville, and not just because of COVID. A local center would benefit both the public and the grocery stores that find redemption of bottles and cans burdensome.

Before retiring, Brad Thompson taught journalism and chaired the journalism department at Linfield University. Earlier in his career, he worked as a reporter and editor at the Rocky Mountain News. He holds a B.A. from the University of Denver, M.A. from the University of Missouri and Ph.D. from the University of Colorado.



Brad Thompson certainly put a lot of time and effort into researching why he isn't able to redeem his ever-growing collection of bottle and cans. But I'm wondering... would it not have been a lot easier and faster (and less frustrating) to just drive to Tigard, redeem them, and return home again?


Good to know how our local grocery stores really feel about their customers....


Journalists don't earn graduate and post-graduate degrees in the field in order to master the researching and interviewing skills allowing them to solve personal problems more efficiently and effectively. They invest years pursuing degrees and amassing experience so they can investigate issues on behalf of readers and report back.

The aim is not to help one person research and resolve a personal problem. It is to help thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, research and resolve a shared, collective problem through the printed word. That's the magic of a mass medium.

The News-Register cares not a whit what frustrations I might face personally trying to rid myself of empty cans and bottles. It cares a great deal, however, when its entire readership is facing that issue, and is wondering both why and what do do about it, which Dr. Thompson covered in detail.

You should be thanking him for saving you and thousands of your neighbors the trouble of getting to the bottom of this on their own. I know I am.

Steve Bagwell, editorial page editor at the News-Register


What a terrific piece of reporting. I am so impressed with his persistence and expertise in unraveling what are the priorities of the local grocery outlets. More like this please.


This well done article touches on one of my hot buttons: the 10 cent recycling fee that is more of a tax than a deposit. The issue is the reclamation process.
The grocery and drug store recycling services take space and are labor intensive to maintain particularly when the machines are often subject to user abuse. While I have not done Mr. Thompson's level of research, casual conversations with grocery employees indicate that providing recycling centers are a cost to stores, not a revenue center. A store generates more customer goodwill by adding an additional teller during busy shopping periods than providing recycling machines.
It wasn't a surprise to me that Salem was so eager to increase the "deposit" to 10 cents because there are multiple Bottle Drop recycling centers in the Salem area as well as along the I-5 corridor. Corvallis has one and there is one in Newport, otherwise, people west of I-5 can stand in line for sticky, dirty, frequently not working machines or we can drive the more than 19 miles to the nearest Bottle Drop center in Salem. What's worse for the environment: driving 40 extra miles or not recycling? I compromise and put my "deposit" eligible cans and bottles in my recycling bin and consider the 10 cent fee as yet another tax from a state government who never considered how the majority of the state is actually going to be able to recover their increased deposit fee.
Rather than complaining that stores aren't providing a cost-intensive service, we should focus our energy on getting a Bottle Drop center in McMinnville or Newberg to serve Yamhill county. I think the Zero Waste group would consider supporting an appeal to Bottle Drop, and our county should certainly support drawing in a new business that would supply jobs as well as a needed service.


I agree that a bottle drop location is needed in McMinnville and would alleviate many of the concerns that the chain grocery stores have with the recycling process. I also agree that recycling Is messy, a hassle, and not a revenue center for business....on the other hand, neither is mopping the floor, collecting shopping carts or cleaning the restrooms.
My ( limited) observation is that many stores have recycling locations outside the store thus not taking up selling space and the employees that are maintaining the recycling machines also have other duties, meaning their jobs add no more cost to the business and would not be eliminated if recycling were to disappear.
Recycling is a cost of doing business, it’s an agreement to abide by the recycling rules that Oregon citizens have asked for.....It’s customer service.
No doubt the recycling areas attract people that are not in the stores target market, but that’s also what keeps all of those cans and bottles from showing up on the side of the road or in the landfill, which is the purpose of the law.
I’m disappointed that the McMinnville businesses are not holding up their end of the bargain...


Thoughtful article, thanks to the author.

Although I do not amass a large volume of cans and bottles, periodically I take mine to the recycling depot in McMinnville where there is a bin for anything with a deposit. The sign above the bin advises that proceeds are donated to charity. Might not be the perfect solution for everyone but it works well for me.


Thank you Brad Thompson for digging into the bottom of this. I have to pay a deposit, but have no local way to redeeem the deposit. That's just wrong. Either remove the deposit, or make retailers open up. I know I'm oversimplifying this, but...


Well written, the only place that I know you can take bottles and cans back is Grocery Outlet, by appointment only, and we have done just that a few times. Not everyone has the ability to go to a different city to return cans, but there needs to be another option available.


If grocery stores, like Roth's, are now packing our purchases in our reusable bags again because they realized surface contact is not the major vector of Covid19 transmission, then bottle redemption needs to open back up!


I have always considered the deposit to be another tax. In my experience, when the return machines are available, half don't work, and the other half are backed up with people and their plastic bags. Mine usually go to the charity bin at the Homeward Bound thrift shop.


When Roth’s little red school house is open, we take our cans & bottles there. Throughout the pandemic we have donated our cans & bottles to the McMinnville High Grad Night. They have a collection drive the first weekend of each month. The donation sites are located at Oregon Mutual Insurance parking lot and The Auto Zone on Baker Street. Times are 12:00-3:00. If we actually had a bottle drop site we would use it but will not use the machines even when they are open. Donating them seems like a good alternative.

David S. Wall

The jurisdiction I hail from had several privately operated "recycle centers."

You take your bag of redeemable plastic recyclables, the bag is weighed, your given a weight-tag and you turn the weight-tag to the cashier and you are paid.

The same for aluminum cans.

Glass bottles were placed into a pre-weighed container, weighed same process as above.

Very simple and efficient.

The methodology in Yamhill County which individual bottles are counted is asinine.

The process in Yamhill County which stores only take the bottles they sell is asinine.

Not taking any redeemable bottles and or cans but still charging the 10 cent fee per container, using COVID-19 as an excuse is theft.

Yamhill County Board of Commissioners should have found a simpler, cost-effective solution to resolve this ongoing environmental problem.

David S. Wall

Don Dix

Maybe grocery stores are not to blame. I also spoke with a store manager about the bottle drop machines and he tells a completely different story.

The contractor that picks up the cans and bottles after being deposited is not presently doing so -- and there is no room to store all those cans until the service returns, so the machines are closed. Most likely all stores in the area are in the same situation.


First we need a bottle drop. Problem solved.
Second, a lot of us in our county would love to donate the bottles for a good cause as noted - MHS grad night.
I honestly don’t think the grocery stores are responsible.


Economics 101 tells us the stores aren't going to spend any money on can collection as long as the OLCC is letting them off the hook and the contractor isn't going to come around to pick up cans until collection resumes.
The contractor is in business to make money, and he's not making any sitting around. If a store called in to say it had cans to pick up, I think it's fair to assume the contractor would be on it in a flash.
So who's picking up all the cans and bottles Grocery Outlet has been redeeming throughout? Here's betting it's not the tooth fairy.

Don Dix

Steve -- so according to you -- stores can get their returns picked up by just asking -- and apparently the manager I spoke with lied -- thanks for that -- as for what Grocery Outlet does with it's returns? -- your the reporter.


I throw my bottles in the recycle bin.


I donate (pawn off) my empties to a homeless man who has the resourcefulness to get them to Tigard so he can have some cash. If Brad is unwilling to make the 30 minute drive I bet my benefactor would love to take care of his little problem, since Brad is unable to....

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