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Houston-Wide Shopping Cart Retrieval Program Proves To Be Uphill Battle For Supporters

Two council members are on a mission to convince the mayor and retailers to buy in.

Last month, we told you about the city of Houston’s pilot program to remove abandoned shopping carts from streets and ditches.

To get an idea of how the program is going, we went out with a city truck.

Since February, retired city worker Barnett Small has been driving through two council districts every day looking for unreturned carts. Districts I and J are on the southeast and southwest side of Houston respectively.

“Just driving in circles and you see them as you go along,” he said.

He finds them on sidewalks, at bus stops and on the street.

It’s actually the second such pilot program. City council member Mike Laster used $18,000 in District J funds for the first one in late 2015/early 2016.

Between the two pilots, the city’s Solid Waste Department has picked up more than 2,400 abandoned shopping carts – in just seven months.

Laster said it’s about more than just aesthetics.

“They’re creating hazards, safety hazards, but more importantly – or as equally important – they’re creating flood control related problems,” he said.

That’s because oftentimes carts end up in ditches where they catch other debris and essentially form dams.

A budget amendment introduced by Laster last year created a taskforce to tackle the problem. It included city officials and retailers, which were working on developing a citywide program.

But at this point, it’s not clear it will work out.

As it turns out, Mayor Sylvester Turner is not a fan.

“I just don’t see the utilitarian value with it and we decided not to proceed with it,” he said when asked about Laster’s amendment to the fiscal year 2018 budget that would have created an ordinance to establish a permanent shopping cart retrieval program.

The amendment ultimately failed.

So what’s next?

District I council member Robert Gallegos said the city administration could still go forward with a citywide program. He hopes the mayor will change his mind when he sees the final tally of carts when the pilot ends next month.

“Once we get these numbers again in August, I will contact the administration and see if and what they’re willing to do with the retailers,” he said.

But it’s not only the mayor the two council members have to convince.

Despite what, on the surface, seems to be a clear benefit for stores, which would get their misplaced shopping carts back, retailers are not in favor of the program – at least not the way it’s currently working.

 “Well, I mean, as an industry, obviously, shopping carts are a major asset that grocery store companies invest in,” said George Kelemen, president of the Texas Retailers Association, which was part of the taskforce. “So they definitely don’t want to see them lost or stolen.”

He said a shopping cart costs anywhere between $150 and $300.

However, he said, for retailers to support a permanent city program, communication has to improve.

“I think there were instances of carts being picked up by the city’s contractor or whoever it was that shouldn’t have been picked up,” Kelemen said. “They were picked up essentially out of the end of a parking lot of a grocer or perhaps on the sidewalk right on the edge.”

Small, the contractor, argued he gives stores at least a day to pick up carts that are right outside.

Kelemen also said many retailers, like Fiesta for example, have their own teams to pick up carts near their stores and feel like they do a better job by themselves.

They might also be less inclined to pay a retrieval fee that is under consideration.

It would help pay for a potential citywide program, which an analysis puts at more than $1 million per year.

“If we’re going to pick up our own cart, why do we need to pay the city a fee for taking a cart that we would have picked up anyways?” Kelemen said. “So that’s where the communication and the coordination comes in.”

Laster said it’s important that the city administration recognize that abandoned shopping carts are a problem.

Without that, he said, it’ll be hard to get the retailers on board. After four meetings in the past seven months, the taskforce has not been able to come to a solution that works for everyone.

Currently, council members Laster and Gallegos use money allocated to their districts to pay for the pilot.

Laster said whatever happens, he will continue the program until the city tells him not to.     

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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