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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: The Challenges Of Pandemic Bottle Redemption

The pandemic and fears associated with it have changed our behavior in ways great and small. In my case very small. Prior to this scourge I’d return my empty bottles and cans to the supermarket at regular intervals to redeem the five-cent deposit. Extended intervals. I wasn’t one of those folks you see arriving with a plastic bag containing five or ten receptacles. By the way, who are these people who consume so little beer and soda that that’s all they have to show for their efforts? Or are so meticulous or have so little storage space that a few measly containers triggers a returnable event?

I don’t think of our family as nonpareil consumers of Canada Dry ginger ale and Harpoon IPA, though my wife and children regularly harangue me about the perils of consuming soft drinks. We’re not chugging the stuff from morning till night. If anything we fall on the abstemious side of the spectrum. If corporate America had to depend on us for their sales they’d promptly run to the government for a bailout.

For me, return for deposit is all, or almost all, about the money. I probably shouldn’t admit this but I actually derive satisfaction from accumulating a critical mass of containers and then returning them all at once. At five cents a bottle, remitting five or ten of them doesn’t go very far. But a hundred receptacles constitutes real money.

Also, it gives me more satisfaction than it probably should knowing that I’m playing my small part in recycling, that my empties aren’t going straight to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There again, returning a hundred cans and bottles, both glass and plastic, provides a far greater sense of virtuousness than only a piddling few of them would.

Prior to the pandemic I’d store them in heavy-duty black contractor bags in our garage, then return them to our local supermarket, one or two bulging bags every few months. The result? As much as eight dollars I didn’t have before now burning a hole in my pocket.

But starting in March I was reluctant to visit the supermarket, let alone risk my health by spending ten or twenty minutes jockeying for a free deposit return machine against others whose attitudes towards facemasks and hand sanitizer and transmission of the disease in general might not be as devout as mine.

So the bottles began to accumulate. First one bag. Then two. Before I knew it half the garage was filled with empties. Something had to be done. I suppose I could have donated them to charity. There’s a program called “Clynk” where you bag, tag and drop off your bottles and the funds go to a favorite local endeavor, such as the public library.

But I enjoy the physical act of returning my empties. Watching them vanish into the maw of the machine. Even the sound of crunching glass. The challenge is to deposit as many of them as possible as fast as possible, requiring assembly line speed, dexterity and precision, before the device detects a lull and spills out a receipt.

This doesn’t sound like it should require particular athleticism. But you try dispatching a hundred or two hundred vessels, keeping three machines – glass, plastic and cans – operating simultaneously while a line forms and agitation grows because you’re too selfish or irresponsible not to have returned your deposits at more civilized intervals.

It was only recently, as the infection rate in our area fell below one percent that I felt it safe to brave our local Price Chopper and its self-service, also known as reverse deposit, machines. Obviously, I wasn’t going to return all my bottles at once. That would have constituted a full day affair and risk a potential altercation with fellow customers.

So I’ve decided to return only one full contractor bag at a time, off hours, though who knows what constitutes off hours these days. The first time I did so I was fortunate to find three unoccupied machines – my supermarket boasts a total of six (two each for glass, plastic and cans) – even though the second set of machines were commandeered by a trio of children returning a few bottles, they cheerfully explained, for ice cream money.

Unlike the mixed signals we’ve been receiving from the CDC lately, I tend to treat children, no matter how charming, as fully capable disease superspreaders so I kept the conversation short.

On a second visit around midday the stars were apparently in alignment because I had the entire reverse deposit vending machine area to myself. Turns out I just got lucky. By the time I exited the supermarket, having cashed my winnings, well over six dollars by the way, a line was forming.

My goal is to empty my garage before a dreaded second wave of the virus. However, I’ve already made one major concession to the bottle return process. I no longer ring the button, summoning a sales associate, to manually process bottles and cans that for one reason or another the machines didn’t recognize and rejected. I’m willing to forfeit the additional quarter or fifty cents, leaving the containers neatly stacked in the hope that some other citizen will claim them and pocket the change.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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