Des Moines (AP) - The elderly woman stopped almost weekly at the Pella Can and Bottle Redemption Center. But until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, owner Sheri Cunningham never knew why.
Then one day last spring the woman approached with tears in her eyes, thanking Cunningham for remaining open.
“She said she’s retired, and her husband had passed away,” Cunningham recalled. “She said she uses the money she gets, about $20 each time, to help buy food. She has heart problems, so the majority of her retirement money goes to medical bills.”
As Cunningham was talking to the woman, another customer listening in joined the conversation. He said the nickels he gets for each can and bottle he brings in help pay for his insulin.
“On an almost daily basis, this is what I hear,” Cunningham told the Des Moines Register.
When Gov. Kim Reynolds shut down can and bottle redemption centers at grocery stores across the state from March until July, many Iowans who cashed in deposits on bags full of empty containers found they had nowhere to go.
Pella Can and Bottle, one of the largest processors for cities and towns in central Iowa, stayed open.
“It was absolutely insane,” Cunningham said. “When COVID hit, a lot of redemption centers closed. But I have a lot of people who depend on me to remain open, so I did.”
People drove 100 miles and even farther so they could exchange all the containers they’d piled up during the shutdown.
By Dec. 1, Cunningham’s employees had sorted $1 million worth of containers this year - the most ever, and about $40,000 more than last year.
“This is something I have never done. When I first purchased my center 20 years ago, my revenue was $200,000,” she said. “Looking at it from a recycling standpoint, that means this year to date my center alone has recycled 16,666,667 containers.”
What happens at redemption centers illustrates why Iowa’s nearly 42-year-old bottle bill has become invaluable to charities and fundraisers, as well as people on fixed incomes.
Bags of beverage bottles and cans add up to revenue for food pantries, Boy Scout troops, school bands and Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. They help pay for weddings and funerals, supplement seniors’ Social Security checks, provide cash for the homeless and extras for families scraping by on tight budgets.
The centers became even more important this year during the deep recession caused by the pandemic. But many have shut down or cut their hours because of health concerns. Some were in trouble even before the pandemic, especially in more rural areas, because too few containers were being turned in to cover costs.
For members of St. Malachy Parish in Madrid, about an hour from Pella, collecting cans and bottles for redemption has long been a way to help others.
For years, Dwight Frideres and his wife, Judy, helped collect the recyclables at the church so he could take truckloads about 10 minutes away to a redemption center in Woodward run largely by people with disabilities.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Iowa in March, however, the redemption center shut down. Frideres suddenly had no place to take mounds of recyclables.
“It was pretty comical,” his wife said. “You couldn’t walk through his woodworking shop … We also had boxes and boxes of wine and beer bottles stacked up in the garage.”
Eventually she found another center that was open about an hour away in Jefferson. More recently, her husband has been taking truckloads to a center in Nevada, about 30 miles.
“The church’s youth group needs the money for mission trips and outings,” she said. “But for my husband, doing this is more personal. He has a fish and wildlife degree and a background in conservation. So it’s a win-win. He keeps stuff out of landfills, and the kids benefit.”
Cunningham has set aside a large room with stalls in the back of her well-organized center to collect recyclables gathered by an ever-changing mix of community groups. Others haul them in trailers, which they park in back of the business until her employees have time to count them.
“Ninety percent of those who come here will wind up spending money in Pella when they’re done,” Cunningham said.
In addition to collecting the thousands of containers her employees sort for different fundraisers across Iowa, Cunningham has set up three sheds in the front of her business so people can donate cans and bottles to benefit causes of their choosing.
Deposits from the cans and bottles placed in one of the sheds go to people with disabilities at Pella’s Christian Opportunity Center. The proceeds from the two others almost always go to help causes for local youth.
Two years ago, donations over three months brought in $3,000 for a high school band trip. This past summer, customers donated containers that generated $1,700 for a show choir trip.
In all, fundraising efforts at Pella Can and Redemption brought in more than $106,000 by mid-November for organizations in 19 communities across Iowa, and $19,000 for others in Pella, according to Cunningham’s tally.
“I absolutely love fundraisers. That’s why I do this,” she said. “Recycling’s great, but I know I can help different organizations, and I can’t ever say no.”
In Iowa and several of the other U.S. states that have bottle bills, redemption centers have faced a deepening economic crisis as handling fees for deposits have failed to keep up with inflation.
Iowa’s 5-cent deposit is among the lowest in the 10 U.S. states with bottle bills. Redemption centers and retailers get just a penny for sorting the containers.
“For more than 40 years, they have been asking us to work on the same penny,” Cunningham said. “But back then, you might have spent $4 for a case of pop, and now it’s more like $10.”
A former accountant who has been in the business more than 20 years, Cunningham, 55, has fared better than many competitors, some of whom have closed shop because they were unable to cover costs at the current rate of reimbursement.
She says she likely wouldn’t be able to remain in business if she didn’t charge service fees for handling the recycling in bulk or for a driver to pick up collected containers.
Customers pay 65 cents for an industrial-sized bag they can fill and return if they don’t want to stand around and wait for employees to count each container by hand. They receive deposits back based on an estimate that deducts the add-on fee for the bag.
Some grocers also help cover her costs. The Hy-Vee in Pella has steadfastly paid $500 a month for 20 years for center workers to process its cans and bottles.
A divorced single mother of two, Cunningham keeps her overhead low. She says she currently has 12 employees and could use 12 more, but she cannot afford them.
“I did consider buying reverse vending machines,” she said, referring to the automated container return machines common in supermarket redemption rooms. “But it’s almost a $200,000 investment, and here’s my thing: If I was 20 or 30, I might. But I’m 10 years away from retiring. Do I want to invest in a piece of equipment that can end my entire career with one vote at the Legislature?”
She says she knows she’d have more competition if the Legislature raised the penny handling fee she receives for each container to 2 cents, which many in the industry insist is needed.
But there’s also pressure for the Legislature, which begins its 2021 session next month, to do away with the redemption law. But what would happen to the retirees, families, churches, volunteer groups and schools that rely on the deposit money?
“I have mixed feelings about what they might do,” Cunningham said.
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