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Can I cash in my bottle returns? And do stores have to accept them?

Last week, Jennifer Imbrogno of Niagara Falls needed milk and cereal. Her truck-driver husband's hours had been cut so, in order to buy the groceries, she needed to cash in her bottle deposits.

She tried to return her empties at four different stores. All four told her they were no longer processing bottle returns because of coronavirus concerns. Imbrogno returned home with her bottles and without food.

"This is just crazy," she said.

Bottle return is a complicated thing right now. Newly unemployed workers waiting for benefit and stimulus checks are watching every penny, and bottle deposits can add up. But with companies on high alert about contagions, handling such intimately used items is unsettling for workers who are already exposed to hundreds of people per day.

"The employees are dealing with things that have been in people's mouths as well as being face to face in close quarters with the public," one concerned worker said in an email.

A sampling of 7-Eleven, Rite Aid, Trader Joe's and Dollar General stores contacted by The Buffalo News said they have temporarily stopped accepting bottle returns due to coronavirus concerns. But Tops Markets and Wegmans still are accepting returns.

According to state law, any dealer that sells containers with deposits is required to process returns on the brands they sell. Dealers must also accept returns and pay refunds during all normal business hours, except for the first and last hour of business for sites open less than 24 hours.

The DEC said there is no evidence that processing bottle returns poses a health risk, but issued guidance on bottle-handling procedures. It includes maintaining social distance, hand-washing and wearing protective gear such as gloves.

Stores and other bottle dealers must still abide by bottle laws requiring them to process redemptions, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. As essential businesses covered under a recycling provision, bottle return centers are exempt from the state's workforce reduction rules, according to Empire State Development.

"DEC continues to enforce regulations associated with container redemptions, which remain in effect," the department said in an email. "Container redemption is considered an essential service and is expected to continue."

The DEC will, however, ease up on dealers when it comes to two specific circumstances related to coronavirus.

"DEC will not actively enforce violations at facilities unable to fulfill redemption operations because of limited staff capacity and resource restrictions during the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis," the department said.

In other words, worker fears about contamination are not a valid reason to stop providing bottle redemption.

But that hasn't prevented some stores from turning people away, customers said.

Dollar General has temporarily suspended bottle collection at all of its stores, the company said.

"We believe continuing our bottle redemption program puts our employees at an increased risk of coming into contact with and potentially spreading COVID-19, " said Angela Petkovic, a Dollar General spokesperson. "Continuing to maintain a bottle redemption program also seems inconsistent with federal, state, and local efforts aimed at reducing the spread of the virus and maintaining appropriate social distances."

In September, in a lawsuit unrelated to coronavirus, Dollar General agreed to pay $100,000 in penalties to the state attorney general for wrongly refusing to accept bottle returns.

Tops Markets said all of its in-store bottle redemption centers are open. But workers answering the phone at the Niagara Falls Tops Market where Imbrogno tried to make a return last week said its bottle return area would be closed indefinitely to protect against coronavirus.

Tops said some machines at that store were out of order, but had been repaired and reopened by Wednesday afternoon.

For worker safety, Tops has temporarily discontinued manual bottle return at the service desk, which Sautter said makes up less than 1% of bottle return activity because "almost all recyclable containers are accepted in our machines."

Workers now wear goggles, gloves and face masks when servicing the machines, Tops said.

Bottle returns at Wegmans' service desk have been discontinued as well. Bottle room hours have been modified, and the machines are temporarily closed frequently for cleaning during the day.

"We suggest that customers check with their local store," before heading in with returns, said Michele Mehaffy, a Wegmans spokesperson.

In recent years, Norway-headquartered redemption company Tomra converted most of its Western New York return centers from a manual sorting process to an automated one.

The automated stores now have "reverse vending machines" that allow customers to dump bags full of bottles and cans directly into them all at once. Workers at those stores don't touch the returns, but switch out the bins with a pallet jack, then set them aside for truck pickup. Tomra owns its own trucks, which also pick up processed returns from retailers.

Since the shutdown, Tomra sites have started new rules. They let just one customer into a store at a time, disinfect machines between every use and have gotten more strict about rejecting returns that haven't been rinsed out, a worker said. Stores have also changed their hours.

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