The Ottumwa Courier

July 9, 2013

Another penny per pop?

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — We cannot allow the temporary closure of Tenco's can redemption center to become a permanent disappointment, said the agency director.

"If we don't get some help from the state in regulations or rule changes, allowing us to earn two cents a can [instead of one cent], I cannot see Tenco being able to keep the redemption center open in the long term," said Ben Wright, Tenco's executive director.

Right now, the redemption center has stopped accepting cans so they could both install some new equipment donated by John Deere Ottumwa Works and catch up on the mountain of cans piling up at Tenco.

Tenco, operated as a safe working environment for individuals with disabilities, has been taking in more than double the cans and bottles they took in two years ago. Because they can "only" process 50,000 containers per day, they have built up a pile of more than a million cans.

The numbers have doubled because when it comes to bulk recycling for cash, Tenco is one of the only places in the entire southeast Iowa region. Wright said that's because with a payment of one-cent per can, other redemption centers couldn't pay their employees or their rent, never mind make a profit. For a while, the nonprofit Tenco Industries was able to survive, but even without needing to make a profit, they are not breaking even. One penny is how much centers were making 23 years ago.

"I don't know any business that can go 23 years without an increase in prices," said Wright. "We maintain a container outside our building for donations. Without the donations of cans from people who don't request the deposit money, we'd be closed."

In other words, he said, it costs more to run the business than the operation brings in.

There are several benefits to the center, Wright said. In addition to providing jobs for individuals with disabilities, people who need a few extra dollars to make ends meet often rely on the redemption center. Even with the current temporary closure, people have been unhappy, he said.

Supermarkets are a very different option for those who want to drop off a bag of cans.

"Frankly, grocery stores and convenience stores don't want to take the cans. They want them washed out, in cardboard flats, they don't take in the large quantities, they'd rather the redemption centers do it. If we close, there's no one else but the stores. I'd like to think the stores will be in agreement that redemption centers get to hold onto two cents per can."

The key, Wright believes, is for the public to support a bill requesting that redemption centers get two cents per can, support from local legislators and a grassroots lobbying movement by everybody saying, "Hey, let's make this right."

And if everyone got behind it, he said, even a one-cent increase in cost would be relatively painless.

"If this leads to an increase that was partially absorbed the distributor, partially absorbed by the consumer and partially absorbed by the retailer, I think the impact would be minimal."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark