As a child Phil Grant traveled north from his Rhode Island home to spend summers in Maine.

Among his memories was joining his friends to round up bottles and cans that they would take to a redemption center to receive money from the deposit. The pocket change was enough to buy candy or some other treat. The practice was something that helped define his childhood here.

Grant now is the chief information officer for Clynk, a next-generation bottle redemption system based in South Portland. He and others in the redemption industry have watched as the number of centers in Maine has steadily declined, a trend they say that was brought on by the staffing shortages that have played out nationally but also razor-thin profit margins that have been eaten away by a rise this year in the state minimum wage and other factors.

There are 328 redemption centers in Maine licensed by the state, a number that’s down by 40 from two years ago.

“It is a sad thing, seeing these redemption centers close because there are so many years tied up with these businesses,” Grant said. “It’s sad, but it’s a tough environment with the labor and the inflation right now in the economy.”

Maine’s “bottle bill” program began in 1978 as the result of a citizen initiative meant to curtail the number of soda and other bottles sprinkled along roadways. A person today receives 5 cents for every bottle that’s turned in for recycling. Maine is one of 10 states with a bottle program, a list that includes Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont. In Maine it’s the state Department of Environmental Protection that’s responsible for licensing redemption centers.


The bottle return program incentivizes recycling by creating a deposit fee, set by the Legislature, which passes a fee from manufacturer to distributor to retailer to consumer. The consumer is responsible for returning the bottle to a redemption center to receive the fee they paid as stipulated by the bottle’s label.

Scott Wilson, manager of the Beverage Container Redemption Program at DEP, said up until 2018 the state paid redemption centers either 3.5 cents per bottle or 4 cents, depending on whether a bottle was sorted with other similar bottles such as soda containers or if they weren’t and required more labor and time to sort.

Redemption centers now are paid back the nickel that they refunded to the customer plus 4.5 cents from the state to sort and organize the bottles.

Josh Mosher, a worker at Raider Redemption in Winslow, shovels a load of compacted cans and bottles earlier this month that were to be shipped to a larger recycling center. Raider Redemption has maintained a brisk business even though many redemption centers in the state have closed. There are 328 redemption centers in Maine licensed by the state, and that number is down by 40 from two years ago. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Costs for everything — staff, bags — has gone up, and the handling fee has not increased,” Wilson said.

He said redemption centers compete with fast food places like Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King for the same minimum wage workers.

“A lot of those jobs are available right now,” Wilson said. “The difference is that those places can give sign-up bonuses, while we as redemption centers don’t have the money to give sign-up bonuses.”


There have been a number of centers in central Maine that have closed in recent months, including ones in Augusta and Waterville.

“When redemption centers close, we lose redemption opportunities, and the easier we can make it for people to return the bottles, the more containers get recycled,” Wilson said.

The centers are paid by bottle distributors to sort their bottles and get them ready for recycling. Lisbon-based Maine Recycling Corp. and TOMRA, an international corporation based in Norway, are among the companies that retrieve bottles and cans from the centers.

A sign shown last month tells the public that a Damon’s redemption center in Augusta has closed. A new Damon’s beverage store is opening nearby on Bangor Street, but it will not include a redemption center. Kennebec Journal photo

According to Wilson, Maine is around the 80th percentile in terms of recycling bottles and cans. The redemption rate, he said, will go down if there are fewer opportunities to redeem them. In the past, Maine’s redemption rate has been as high as 87%.

Services like ones offered by Clynk and bins available at places like Hannaford and Shaw’s supermarkets make it easier for people to drop off their bottles and cans. Wilson said that these self-service opportunities will keep Maine’s redemption rate up.

“The opportunities of how to redeem and where to redeem are changing,” Wilson said. “There is a difference in the opportunities because everything was a hand-count before, and now we’re getting into technologies like Clynk’s drop-off operation. Redemption opportunities have changed, but people are still redeeming their bottles.”


But Donald Cook, the owner of Rolando’s Redemption Center in South Portland, said he’s struggling because he can’t find workers.

“It is a minimum wage job and most of my people — 45 years I’ve been in business — have been people with challenges,” he said.

Cook hires people who’ve been released from jail, have a history of addiction or have faced other life-altering problems.

“It’s the economics of it, cost of labor and fuel costs,” Cook said. “You raise the minimum wage, you’re going to drive redemption centers out of business, because they can’t afford more help.”

There are some centers that are faring well, and one factor is they tend to pay more than minimum wage and take other steps that allow them to retain workers.

Steve Veilleux, owner of Raider Redemption in Winslow, said his business remains busy. In one recent week, Raider Redemption was open for five days rather than the usual six and accepted 230,000 bottle returns in those five days.


“The environment is nice and refreshing, we are friendly, we talk to people,” Veilleux said. “A lot people come here and a lot of elderly people come here because they know it is clean.”

“Help hasn’t really been that difficult to find, for me, because I take care of my people,” he continued. “I pay them well; I buy them lunch. I do everything I can for them because they don’t have a lot of money.”

People aren’t just bringing in two or three bags of cans, he said, they are bringing in two or three truck loads.

“A lot of places give you a store voucher, letting you spend it in the store,” he said. “People don’t want to do that. They want gas. They need groceries. Everyone is saving cans for money.”

Josh Mosher, a worker at Raider Redemption in Winslow, places bottles in a bin earlier this month. Raider Redemption has maintained a brisk business even though many redemption centers in the state have closed. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

At Pittsfield Redemption in Pittsfield, owners Kurt and Lori Dodge say they’re looking to grow their operation.

“We have a good working crew and keep the place clean, and when we say that we are open, we are open,” Kurt Dodge said.


He said the volume of cans and bottles that are turned in at his center has increased by 26% over at least the last year.

“We do very well and are fortunate,” Dodge said. “We get people from all over: Waterville, Pittsfield, Troy, Unity, Bangor. But I know a lot of (redemption centers) are closing.”

Wilson said that as places close, people will have fewer opportunities to recycle and redeem their bottles. Those bottles will instead end up in a landfill.

“For 40 years now, part of Maine life is that you redeem and recycle your bottles,” he said. “As we lose redemption centers, we will see that redemption rates will drop off, because it’s not as easy to redeem bottles.”

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