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City Of Houston To Tackle Abandoned Shopping Cart Problem

Every year, Houston retailers lose hundreds of shopping carts that end up in ditches and on streets.



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Abandoned shopping carts litter a ditch along Beechnut Street.
Abandoned shopping carts litter a ditch along Beechnut Street.

Standing just above the Bintliff ditch off Beechnut near the Southwest Freeway, Houston City Council member for District J Mike Laster counted seven shopping carts tangled up in weeds, plastic bags and other trash, almost creating a dam just before the ditch flows under Beechnut Street.

"They get there because those carts migrate off of shopping area, shopping pads," Laster said. "And they find themselves in these flood control ditches and they find themselves on esplanades and in parks and on street rights-of-way."

Laster said this has caused flooding, so the abandoned shopping carts that can be found throughout the city are not just an aesthetic nuisance but also a public safety issue.

"So you have density upon density close to shopping areas, which lends itself in a very urban setting to walk to the store and want to push your groceries home in a cart," he said.

Houston City Council member Mike Laster stands above a ditch littered with shopping carts. His amendment to the city’s 2017 budget addresses the problem.

Last year, Laster initiated a pilot program for his district. For three months, the city's Solid Waste Management Department picked up any abandoned shopping carts they found and stored them at a depository.

"What we would then do is categorize them by retailer and reach out to those stores and ask them to come out and collect their carts," said Sarah Mason, Houston's recycling programs manager, who oversaw the pilot. "And we did have a 72 percent retrieval rating."

She said they collected 870 carts from 37 different retailers. About 60 of the carts couldn't be identified and were recycled.

The city will now consider expanding the program to all of Houston. It's part of this year's budget after council member Laster proposed an amendment to include it.

"The question is, how much is it going to cost and how are we going to implement the program?" Laster said.

He said expanding the program will cost about $1 million, which could be found somewhere within the budget. And he said it could partly pay for itself by charging a retrieval fee and from recycling.

Joe Williams with the Texas Retailers Association stands in front of an Aldi. The grocery store chain requires a 25 cent deposit for its shopping carts.

Joe Williams with the Texas Retailers Association agreed abandoned carts are a big problem, but said any city solution has to be done right.

"You’ve got to put the time and effort into it, and it's got to be a commitment of everybody, of all involved," he said. "And that includes the city and the county and industry."

And he said residents without transportation have to be considered to make sure their needs are met.

Williams said whenever someone "borrows" a cart, it can cost the store between $150 and $200.

"An average Kroger probably carries, I would say, 200 to 300 inventory of carts at a given time," he said. "They may lose, and it really depends on the location, they may lose 10 or 15 percent of those in a year's time."

He said some retailers have their own loss prevention programs where they pick up their carts in the community. Some have installed a system that stops the carts at the end of the parking lot. And others, like Aldi, require a small deposit for their shopping carts.

Some retailers, like this East End Kroger, have a system that prevents shopping carts from leaving the premises.

Not all carts end up in ditches.

Edwyn Jutkiewicz and his girlfriend are homeless and were camping under a Gulf Freeway overpass.

They had nine – yes, nine – shopping carts to transport their tent, a stove, and food for them and for their three dogs.

"What is a homeless person supposed to do when you got your personal stuff to get it from one place to another?" Jutkiewicz said.

Council member Laster said he would like to work with homeless organizations to offer those people alternatives to shopping carts.

Communities throughout the country have tried to tackle the issue.

Phoenix, for example, has a shopping cart retrieval program where retailers are charged $20 to pick up their carts from the city.

New Jersey requires counties to notify cart owners before impounding abandoned carts.

Houston's solid waste department has until late September to present an update on its efforts to the city council.