The Ottumwa Courier

July 29, 2013

Changes at Tenco frustrating but necessary, director says

By CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Tenco's can redemption center has reopened, though new hours and rules have rubbed some the wrong way.

Tenco, which reopened on Wednesday, was closed for two weeks to install new equipment and play catch-up with a backlog of 1.3 million cans.

"People come from miles away with cans, and what was happening was we were falling way behind," said Tenco executive director Ben Wright.

Now, the goal is to keep the center from sliding back into the stress of practically being buried by too many cans, which they hope to control by limiting the center's hours to 20 per week, compared to the 32.5 hours per week it was open previously.

"We'd love to be open more if we thought we could handle it, but this seems to be about what we can be open and keep up with what comes in," Wright said. "I know there are a lot of frustrated people out there and we feel bad about it and wish we could change, but there's just no way."

Reduced hours mean longer lines, with some waiting up to 45 minutes or an hour. One way to eliminate that wait is to donate the cans to the center's donation box instead of waiting in line to redeem the 5 cents per can. Not only is there no wait, Wright said, but the money goes back to the individuals with disabilities that Tenco serves.

"We're only taking in cans that are redeemable by them having to put cans in clear bags," he said. "What happened previously was people would bring in cans in black and white plastic bags and write a number on it. Now, we're saying all bags have to be inspected to make sure they're redeemable and there's no glass, for the protection of the people in here."

Individuals can now only bring in at most 500 cans or bottles per day.

"That's the thing that's got people the most upset," he said. "People come from quite a ways away with a trunkload of cans ... and show up with 1,000 cans or many more that we cannot process."

Wright doesn't argue with the public's complaints, but he said his hands are tied and the changes had to be implemented in order for the center to stay open.

"If we were forced to take every can that came in, we would have to literally close," he said. "There's no way we could stay open. It's not a profitable venture for us. We do it for the people we serve with disabilities."

Before the temporary closure, the center was taking in around 100,000 cans per day — "and that was just killing us." On any given day, there are 20 to 30 Tenco clients working in the can redemption center.

Another huge problem is one small coin: a penny. Currently, people pay five cents per can or bottle at the store and when they redeem that can, they get their nickel back. When the distributor shows up at Tenco to pick up the cans, Tenco receives 6 cents per can, resulting in a one-cent profit.

That needs to increase to two cents per can, he said, so other can redemption centers could open and Tenco's long lines would disappear.

"We could at least keep our head above water," he said.

Can redemption centers have been open for 23 years and have not seen an increase per can in that time.

"We just can't operate that way, with competitive labor rates and everything else," he said. "We had to try to reduce the number of cans we take in to ensure we don't have the overhead costs for storage. It's a vicious circle, and it's really because the laws haven't changed in 23 years."

If an increase doesn't happen soon, Tenco's can redemption center could close, he said, and then southeast Iowans would have very few options to redeem their cans.

As a whole, Tenco is not in danger of closing, he said, but the can redemption center is.

"If we keep losing money I would think it's something ... our board would have to look at, is closing the can center," he said. "If we can help support the idea of an additional penny, hopefully other centers could open. We welcome competition. It would solve everyone's problem."

The center was taking in more than double the number of cans its clients could sort, therefore it was paying out twice the amount its checkbook could handle.

"That's another issue: cash flow," he said. "Cash was going out that we couldn't get back for months on end."

The center's new conveyor system and glass crusher, donated by Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation and John Deere Ottumwa Works, will also help streamline operations, Wright said.

"No matter what we do, we can't handle the kind of volume that was coming in," he said. "Now we're able to keep up on a daily basis. And before, our count was an estimate; now our count is accurate."

Iowa DNR representatives in charge of can redemption centers could not be reached as of press time Monday.

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.

Tenco's new can redemption rules and new hours: -- All cans and bottles will be counted. -- No crushed cans will be accepted. -- Drop-offs and fundraisers will need to be pre-approved by calling 641-814-5676. -- Only 500 cans/bottles per person per day will be accepted. -- Cans mixed with glass will not be accepted. -- Any cans/bottles that are not accepted will be returned to the customer or can be left at Tenco for disposal, but the customer will not be paid for them. Tenco hours: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday Closed Sundays and Mondays