Clutter and long lines at the Stadium Fred Meyer container redemption center prompted Fred Meyer to make changes.

Clutter and long lines at the Stadium Fred Meyer container redemption center prompted Fred Meyer to make changes.

Allan Classen
Editor & Publisher

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To address customer complaints about the “less savory” environment around its bottle return station, Stadium Fred Meyer decommissioned its self-service “reverse vending” machines last month.

Individuals will still be able to return beverage containers for cash, but the capacity reduction might be seen as an effort to discourage high volume “canners,” people who collect bottles and cans for their subsistence.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission requires larger beverage retailers in this area to accept up to 144 cans per person per day, and notices to this effect are posted in Fred Meyer’s bottle return station. But nothing compels stores to provide rapid service.

The self-service “reverse vending machines” in the Stadium Fred Meyer basement have been decommissioned.

The self-service “reverse vending machines” in the Stadium Fred Meyer basement have been decommissioned.

The lines of people, many with shopping carts stacked high with empties, moved so slowly that few typical shoppers were willing to endure the wait or encounter the “less savory” element in the process. By capping the number of containers any one person can redeem at once and replacing labor-saving machines with one hand-counter, the system is now less practical for high-volume recyclers.

As long as other local supermarket chains retain their self-service machines, more canners will presumably migrate to Safeway, Whole Foods and other stores.

We’re giving this a try because we want to make sure our customers are happy,” said Jeffery Temple, director of corporate affairs for Fred Meyer. “We hope this will help with some of the less savory aspects of bottle return for our customers.”

The West Burnside store is not the first Fred Meyer outlet to make this decision.

Christie Scott, spokesperson for OLCC, said her agency has spoken with two other Portland-area Fred Meyer store managers, who told them “management is moving away from the reverse vending machines at most stores to try to cut down on loitering and garbage.”

None of these stores are required to have reverse vending machines,” Scott continued, “so hand counting is legal. One of the benefits of a hand count is to capture containers rejected from the machine for any reason, such as crinkled, smudged barcode, etc.”

The share of beverage containers redeemed across the state has steadily declined in recent years, from 71 percent in 2012 to 64 percent last year. This was a primary reason the Oregon Legislature increased the deposit from 5 cents to 10 cents this year.

Meanwhile, a new redemption system is gaining acceptance. BottleDrop, a membership system wherein bags are deposited in locked depots at stores and stand-alone redemption centers, has become the way most people recycle containers. BottleDrop is a program of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, which is owned by beverage distributors.

BottleDrop members can drop off bags of containers at the redemption station, where containers are counted later and credited to their accounts.

BottleDrop members can drop off bags of containers at the redemption station, where containers are counted later and credited to their accounts.

About half of returns statewide were through BottleDrop in 2016, and memberships in Portland more than doubled from the first to the second quarter of 2017.

OBRC communications manager Cherilyn Bertges responded to nearly every question about the closing of self-service machines by touting the advantages of BottleDrop membership. Fred Meyer promotes BottleDrop membership by offering a 20 percent bonus for container receipts applied to purchases at their stores.

Homeless people or those without internet access cannot readily qualify for BottleDrop accounts, however. While container redemption is becoming convenient and efficient for established households, it is getting tougher for those on the social margins.

We asked Bill Russell, executive director of Union Gospel Mission, about the possible consequences of the emerging two-tiered system. Russell doubts removing undesirables from stores is the goal, though it may be an unintended consequence.

If poor people are being harmed, I want to know that,” he said.