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Cashing In

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Recycling carbonated beverages is a multimillion dollar business in Vermont with bottle deposits generating more than $13 million a year. And most Vermonters want that money back. The WCAX investigative team went undercover to put a half dozen redemption centers to the test.

Every time you buy a 12-pack of seltzer, soda or beer you shell out an extra 60 cents under the bottle bill.

"It's a nickel a can. That's money," said Dale Scichitano, customer.

That may not sound like a lot. But multiply it by all the carbonated beverages sold statewide and millions of dollars in nickels are changing hands.

"I want my money back," said Peggy Twitchell, customer.

Most Vermonters are just like Twitchell. The state has a 75 percent return rate on bottle deposits, making lines at redemption centers common.

Reporter Jennifer Costa: Do you count your recyclables before you come here?

Susan Ouellette: No.

Costa: How accurate do you think their can counts are? 

Scichitano: Pretty close.

"I've never had any issue to think that they were ripping me off," said Tim Halvorson, customer.

But not everyone trusts the guys behind the counter with their empties.

"I'm not sure I would trust bringing a bag of bottles in. I'd prefer going to the machines and sticking them in because then I know I'd get my money's worth," said Deidre LaCouture.

"I'm pretty sure a lot of them undercut you," said Kevin Zimmerman, Burlington.

"I've kind of done a pre-count," said Jeff Casey, customer. 

Casey is convinced the counters short him by a few bucks every time.

"If they did it to everybody that's a pretty good bonus to split up at the end of the day," said Casey.

So who's cashing in? Are counts at redemption centers honest or are they ripping you off? We decided to investigate, first collecting, sorting and counting thousands of our own recyclables. Our team hit the road with undercover cameras and pre-counted bags of bottles and cans to put six Vermont redemption centers to the test. We gave each spot two shots to get it right. Our results were mixed.

During our first visit to the Vergennes Redemption Center, we got one bonus can. But on the second visit we were shorted by 34 empties.

At River Road Beverage in Essex, we had split results. First, they gave us credit for 11 extra cans; then undercut us by 35 empties.

Barre's Beverage Baron shorted us by five on the first visit, only to give us 11 bonus cans the second time around.

In Montpelier, Discount Beverage was spot on for our first test, then shorted us by eight empties on the second visit.

St. Alban's Beverage Mart was the only redemption center to return accurate counts both times. 

And in Winooski, the numbers fell in the customers' favor during both tests. Beverage Warehouse paid us for 18, then 32 cans we didn't have.

"If they're not counting accurately then they're going to be out of a job," said George Bergin, Beverage Warehouse owner

Bergin says 10 million-12 million bottles and cans pass through his facility every year. It's a fast-paced job and mistakes happen.

"Was I on 65 or 75? Always err on the side of the customer, go 75," said Bergin.

These guys tell me they don't mind talking to customers, but admit carrying on a conversation is the single most distracting obstacle to getting an accurate can count.

"I take their word. I don't want to argue with them," said Naeem Abbasi, Montpelier Discount Beverage owner. 

Abbasi says it's not worth losing business over 5 cents. Abbasi encourages customers to correct the counter if there's a dispute.

"We all human and all make mistakes. I do listen to my customer because they do come back again," said Abbasi.

"Interesting to see what your results are," said Bryn Oakleaf, Vt. Agency of Natural Resources.

Oakleaf is an environmental analyst with the Agency of Natural Resources which regulates redemption centers for the state. She says there are about 100 registered in Vermont.

"We do occasionally get complaints, but it's not very common," said Oakleaf. 

Oakleaf says while redemption centers are crucial to the success of the bottle bill,  there's not much incentive for the owners.

"You're not getting rich in the redemption business," said Oakleaf.

They resell their customers' recyclables to a distributor and each empty earns a 3-4 cent profit.

Back at Beverage Warehouse, Bergin says that translates to $350,000-$420,000 a year. But he says despite the volume, he's lucky to break even.

"It's a very dirty, somewhat dangerous, very thankless job and you really don't make any money doing it," said Bergin.

WCAX reached out to the owners of each redemption center we tested. Only two wanted to go on camera. Two others say sometimes they get busy, but it's not an excuse for inaccurate counts and that they're going to look into our investigation in an effort to improve. WCAX did not hear back from Beverage Mart or Beverage Baron.

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