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Stores struggle with trash bag give-out

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rick Joseph would love to hand out city trash and recycling bags to whoever walks into the Kanawha City Foodland. He just needs more bags.

"I don't understand how hard it is to deliver trash bags," said Joseph, the store's owner. "There's black and there's clear. I deal with thousands of items every day."

Yet the Foodland, like the other four stores who signed up to help distribute bags under Charleston's new system this year, says the contractor -- WasteZero -- can't keep up with the demand. Stores ran out of clear recycling bags last weekend.

"We are in stock," Joseph said Wednesday. "They sent us one pallet of the clear. I ordered three. That was the topic of my conversation with them today -- why can't they fill my orders."

Bags were in even shorter supply last weekend at the Patrick Street Drug Emporium, manager Ron Tornes said, but were back in stock Wednesday.

"We ran out of all the bags Friday morning. We got the black ones in Monday. Clear we just got in today," he said Wednesday. "The clear bags, they tell me they're short on. I got one pallet yesterday and have four on back order.

In an effort to save money, City Council members decided to privatize the twice-a-year bag give-out to residential property owners.

"I have to take that on me -- the credit, or blame," said Councilman Bobby Reishman, chairman of council's Finance Committee.

He said he came up with the scheme to help appease some of the newer council members who complained the bag handout is costly and outdated.

"I'm aware of the problems we had in the past," Reishman said, when trash collectors complained about the flimsy bags some residents used for their trash.

"There was a savings of about $48,000 ... and most of it was savings on city labor. I thought, and still do, there's merit to have people come to stores twice a year."

Under the old program, people could drive to the distribution point -- typically under the interstate along Pennsylvania Avenue, hand their voucher to a city worker and other city workers would load their bags into the back seat or trunk.

This year, with little or no warning, North Carolina-based WasteZero began mailing vouchers to residents early this month, advising them they could exchange their vouchers for bag at participating stores.

"When we first started we ran out," said Tornes at Drug Emporium. "We got caught off guard. We had them lined up outside the door on the first day. They sent us a three-week supply and we ran out in about three days."

Folks called City Hall and newspapers to complain. Some wondered why they hadn't received their vouchers, only to learn WasteZero planned to mail them out in stages during the month. Another round went out last week, Joseph said.

There's no rush to redeem them, unlike the previous program. As the vouchers say, you can use them between now and Jan. 31, 2014. A second half-year hand-out will start in February.

Still, not everyone is happy.

"We've had a few complaints," Tornes said. "The elderly people don't like the program. They have to get out of the car and come into the store. It's a little harder on them."

That's by design. The idea that stores that sign up for the program will benefit when folks buy a few items along with their bags. Sometimes it works, Tornes said.

"Some people are buying other items. I'm sure there are new customers coming in."

At Foodland, folks pick up their bags at the rear and get their vouchers at a checkout counter. "There is increased traffic, but normally they pick up their bags and leave," Joseph said.

Increased sales are the only compensation stores get for participating, he said, although WasteZero originally promised a kickback.

"It was pitched at first that you were supposed to get a quarter per package," Joseph said. "You still have people to unload the truck and run them through the register. That would have covered the cost."

Drug Emporium has added a cashier during the day to help process bag customers, Tornes said, and others pitch in when landlords come through with 30 or 40 vouchers for their tenants.

Reishman said he had hoped a big-box chain like Kroger or Home Depot that had the capacity for bulk sales would take on the program. "But we had to bid it out." It takes time for national corporations to gear to bid on local programs, he said.

"I know people have a problem. People used to put them in their trunk. No one comes out of the grocery store to do that." And he's well aware of the shortages. "You're not going to buy anything in the store if they don't have bags."

He's not ready to give up, though.

"I would encourage the city to do the bags this way. But we have to make sure the bags are there. That's something we can correct."

City Manager David Molgaard said he's been talking with WasteZero, too.

"We're going to make an effort to get the bags out to the stores, and talk to the distributors about loading up," he said.

WasteZero should have known how many bags to provide, and done a better job of educating residents, Molgaard said.

"We were relying on them to make sure the program ran smoothly. Part of my discussion with the guy has been you can't predict people will evenly distribute themselves among the five stores.

"We'll see how it works. We've got one more distribution. We'll do triage. The problem with going back [to the old system] is there's a learning curve. They learn the new system, then they have to learn another one."

And despite the hassles, Tornes and Joseph said they'll likely sign up again for the February handout.

"I'm not committed, but I would say we will," Joseph said. "I won't give them a death penalty. I've been threatening them I wouldn't do it again. They've been very nice, though."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.

 


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