Jessie Williams sorts bottles Jan. 17 at Roddy’s Redemption Center in China. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

SOUTH CHINA — Amanda and Tom Roddy are tired.

The owners of Roddy’s Redemption Center have been working daily shifts, nights and weekends to sort the flood of  bottles and cans their account holders and customers drop off at the Route 3 business they bought almost five years ago.

They hand out nickels for each can and bottle they take in; 15 cents for containers that held wine or spirits.

As their costs rise, though, they wonder how their small business will be able to keep up with the demand for redemption if what they’re paid for doing the work doesn’t change. It has nothing to do with the nickel or 15 cents consumers pay when buying the expanding array of drinks that fall under Maine’s bottle redemption law and then get back from independent redemption centers like the Roddys’ when they turn them in.

Thanks to that small cash incentive, the deposit program has been outstandingly successful in keeping bottles, cans and miniature bottles, or nips, from littering the Maine landscape since voters endorsed the plan in 1976 and soundly defeated a beverage industry-supported referendum to overturn the program three years later.

The Roddys’ rising costs, instead, are related to the fixed handling fee, set in state law, that redemption centers are paid by manufacturers and distributors for counting, recounting, sorting and sometimes rejecting the bottles and cans that come through their doors. For every bottle redemption centers process, they are paid a 4.5-cent handling fee. While that amount has been static for the last four years, the costs that fee has to pay for — wages, utilities, supplies, rent or mortgage — have all gone up.


Now that a number of redemption centers have closed across the region, the Roddys are feeling the pressure as people and organizations from as far away as Belfast and Belgrade have come to them looking for a place to return bottles and cans.

“There are two big struggles for redemption centers,” Amanda Roddy said recently. “One is that you can’t find people to work. And the other part of it is that the state has not given us a raise in four years, yet they keep upping the minimum wage, and the cost of living goes up every year.”

That means in the low-margin enterprise of handing bottles for Maine’s redemption program, businesses are getting more stretched, and they are looking for relief.


For the Palermo couple, traffic to their small business at 110 Route 3 in South China has not been light. For months, they and their workers have been flat out, counting and sorting the beverage containers at a steady clip.

They have their regulars, some of whom turn over the cash they’ve collected to buy beer, wine or cigarettes at the small store the Roddys operate on site. And they have customers with accounts, who collect cans and hold bottle drives as fundraisers for their schools or organizations.


On Thursdays, they post a closed sign, park their cars behind their building and cover the front window with cardboard, so they can get caught up on counting and sorting, particularly for organizations that bring in bottles by the bag or by the trailer-load. And even that’s not enough to keep pace with demand; three times in the second half of 2022, they shut down entirely for a week to get caught up.

While the public sees the initial count that’s needed to refund the redemption fee, the rest of the process is more complicated. Containers are separated according to the requirements of the two recycling companies that collect them, sorting by type and ensuring the bags and boxes hold the correct number of bottles or cans so the recyclers aren’t shorted. The recyclers pick up those boxes and bags on their regularly scheduled runs for the next step in the cycle.

This is the redemption side of Maine’s bottle deposit program, one of fewer than a dozen nationwide.

According to the Natural Resources Council of Maine — a supporter of bottle redemption — 1.17 billion beverage containers were sold in Maine in 2021. Just under half of those are hand-sorted by independent redemption centers like Roddy’s Redemption Center.  CLYNK, the bottle redemption program that allows consumers to drop off returnables in bags it provides and accumulate money to be cashed out or used at Hannaford supermarkets, processes about 16.5%. About 9% are processed using reverse vending machines and 25% are not redeemed.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection has managed the program since 2015. It issues annual licenses for redemption centers and oversees the complexities of making sure that beverages sold in Maine that fall under the program are recorded with the state and properly marked for sale so that the nickel or 15-cent deposits are paid out and can be redeemed appropriately.

Beer, wine, liquor, soda and water fall under the laws; milk, dairy-derived products and Maine-produced apple cider and blueberry juice, for example, do not.


Scott Wilson, manager of the CLYNK program, said nearly 60,000 different products fall under the state’s redemption laws, and the bottles that carry those products fall into at least 649 sorting categories.

“Since we’ve legalized marijuana,” Wilson said, “we now have all the CBD and marijuana drinks, too.”

Not every redemption center will have 649 different containers to sort cans and bottles into, he said, because not all products are sold everywhere in the state.

The two recycling companies that pick up the sorted bottles and cans from redemption centers — Maine Recycling and TOMRA — have different requirements for the products they handle that redemption centers have to meet.

In some cases, redemption center workers can combine or commingle containers for similar products like national beer brands into the same boxes or bags regardless of who makes them. In other cases, water bottles that are identical in every way except for the seller’s name on the label have to be counted and sorted into separate bags by seller.

Redemption center workers also have to keep an eye out for products that appear to be redeemable in Maine but may not be.


Amanda Roddy said redemption centers can’t accept water bottles sold under the Wegman’s or Publix names — two grocery store chains that don’t operate in Maine — even though the 5-cent deposit is stamped on the label, and that angers some customers. That’s because no nickel was paid at the time of purchase, so no nickel can be redeemed.

Sometimes, summer vacationers bring them along from their home states. But more often, Wilson said, they come into the state via donations to food banks.

And sometimes, new drinks are stocked in grocery and convenience stores before they get on the state’s bottle redemption list. That adds an additional step to the sorting process, because they have to be set aside until the products are added and they can be accounted for.

“We’ve had people apply and work for a few days,” Roddy said. “They complain that it’s too physical or they don’t think they’re ever going to get it because there’s so much to remember and learn. It’s very overwhelming when people first come.”


Allison Hepler, a Democratic state representative from Woolwich, first became aware of the impact of the surge in redeemables last summer, when a Georgetown transfer station employee called her up wondering what to do about all the bottles and cans people had been dropping off because they couldn’t or didn’t want to take them to redemption centers.


“It’s his job to keep all of that stuff out of the landfill,” said Hepler, whose recently redrawn district stretches from Woolwich south to Georgetown Island.

Hepler had noticed that some redemption centers in her area had closed, and she started to take a closer look. In coastal towns in and around her district, several had closed down because their rents had become unaffordable.

Hepler is one of the state legislators who is proposing a bill this session that involves the state’s redemption centers; hers is one of eight so far, including one that would repeal the program in its entirety. When they are considered at some point later in the legislative session, it’s possible that some will have been combined.

Hepler, who visited Roddy’s Redemption in January to see the sorting process in action, is proposing to simplify the storing and billing process to make the cycle of processing and picking up beverage containers more efficient and more cost effective; ensure that bottle redemption is a convenient option for Mainers; and sets aside unredeemed deposits, estimated at about $16.7 million by the Natural Resource Council of Maine, currently returned to the beverage manufacturers or the state’s general fund to instead support improvements to the bottle redemption program. About 20% of unreturned deposits goes to the state’s general fund, or roughly $3.3 million a year; the vast majority goes to the beverage manufacturers.

Hepler’s goal is to support the small businesses that are integral to Maine’s bottle redemption program.

And it’s something that Roddy hopes will help others to open redemption centers to help carry the load.


Peter Welch, left, owner of Gaia Forest Ave. Redemption, Tom Roddy, Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, and Amanda Roddy talk about proposed bills to change Maine’s container redemption system during a visit Tuesday, Jan. 17, at Roddy’s Redemption Center in China. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Wilson, the manager of the CLYNK bottle redemption program, acknowledged that there have been changes in redemption center ownership in the last few years, as some owners have died and others have either sold to someone else or closed entirely.

But, he noted, the closures are not as widespread as people think. The state has lost about 20 redemption centers in the last year, but 328 are currently operating.

Instead, he sees the problem now as a shortage of redemption hours.

“There’s one redemption center in the Midcoast area that takes bottles and cans until the room is full,” Wilson said. “They know they can get that stuff sorted and get paid. If they take more in, they are behind the eight-ball the next day.”

In Augusta, Derek Allee opened Ante Up Redemption in November on Eastern Avenue, just west of the VA Medical Center-Togus, and the learning curve has been steep. Allee, who recently retired from the U.S. Navy, said he saw a need for the service and he was becoming frustrated by the shortage of options. And he knew a couple of people who had been laid off from other redemption centers who could do the work.

“I saw where I could have the manpower, I saw the opportunity and I saw the need in the community,” he said. “I just wanted to start this venture.”


While business is slow now, he’s expecting it will take off in the spring and summer.

Hepler is likewise optimistic; she believes that needed changes will come to the program because it has strong support and there’s interest in maintaining its convenience and sustaining the small businesses that make it go.

For her part, Roddy is hoping not only for an increase in the handling fee, she’d also like to see the number of sorting categories be reduced to cut down on the labor costs.

Roddy’s Redemption Center in South China is open four, and sometimes five, days a week. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Not long ago, she looked at the numbers. When the Roddys first bought the business, it was open six days a week and they had four part-time employees. Now, it’s open four days a week with an optional fifth day as needed, and it employs an additional part-time employee.

Even though the Roddys have taken on more hours of work for themselves and cut back the number of hours their employees work, they’re paying more for labor on a monthly basis than when they started, and they are not making any more money.

Heppler would also like the chance to meet other redemption center owners like Peter Welch of Forest Avenue Redemption in Portland, who has been in the business for years and recently toured the Roddys’ operation in order to share information and learn from one another. Welch relies on self-serve machines, which customers insert their containers into, to do much of the sorting labor.

“We’ve been figuring this out as we go along,” she said.

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