Grocers nervous about onslaught when bottle returns resume
ALPENA — While many Northeast Michigan residents anxiously wait to return cans and bottles, area grocery stores are anxious about how they’re going to deal with the volume.
State officials estimate about $67 million in bottles and cans are waiting to be returned for the 10-cent deposit after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer prohibited returns amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to Ron Leix, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Treasury.
By the time Whitmer’s ban is lifted on June 15, Leix said, that amount could approach $80 million.
Bryan Neiman, chief executive officer of Neiman’s Family Market, said store management is working to develop a plan to accommodate customers safely while allowing employees to safely sanitize and empty the bottle and can return machines.
Under the new return rules, social distancing — staying at least six feet away from others — will still be required. Grocery stores can limit the amount of returns they collect in a day to $25 per person, as well as the hours when bottles can be returned. Stores can also limit the number of machines customers can use and can close their return areas for cleaning.
Neiman said it’s going to be a challenge. The company was already taking in the maximum number of bottles and cans they could when the coronavirus hit Michigan in mid-March.
“It’s not going to be like, the 15th, every single person can come back in and put all the cans in the machine and you’re going to get your money back that day,” he said. “I’m anticipating us not being open all the time, meaning there will be times where we just can’t take any more cans back.”
Neiman asked customers to be patient, with lines at return machines expected.
“We’ll do the best we possibly can as fast as we can,” he said.
Meanwhile, cans and bottles at the future home of the Alpena County Animal Facility continue to mount.
Leanne Bloom, treasurer of the nonprofit, said board members and volunteers have collected bottles and cans as a fundraiser for the last five weeks in the parking lot of Better Living Massage Center and Spa.
Bloom lost count at around 220 bags of returns.
“We’ve had people that have brought a bag with 10 cans in it who want to donate and help,” she said. “We’ve had people who’ve had the back of their trucks full of cans and bottles that want to donate and just are tired of not being able to take them back.”
Bloom said Huron Distributors has agreed to take back cans and the glass bottles that they distribute, and the nonprofit is working with Meijer to determine the best way to return the rest.
The organization has another bottle drive planned for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
“Eventually, we’re going to be able to take it back,” she said. “So, to me, this is like money in the bank. It might take us a month or so to get everything returned, but, eventually it will all be returned.”
Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.