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Abandoned shopping carts leave some city residents feeling pushed around | CBC News



Abandoned shopping carts leave some city residents feeling pushed around | CBC News

Rolling the streets alone or tangled together in a herd of metal, abandoned shopping carts are an unwelcome part of the urban landscape in Edmonton and other Canadian cities.

Every year, thousands of carts stray from the store parking lots where they belong and come to rest in streets, alleys, city parks or deep into the wilds of the river valley.

The phenomenon has long proved a nuisance in Canadian cities. Discarded carts are a perennial eyesore and a source of unwieldy rubbish that can often prove costly to retailers and the municipal governments saddled with cleaning them up.

“Do something. Keep the bloody carts on the lot,” says Rick Belsher, a longtime volunteer with Edmonton’s Capital City Clean Up who estimates he’s reported nearly 200 abandoned carts. 

“We can’t leave our trash on the streets. But they can get away with it? It just doesn’t seem to matter.”

Respect the city and your neighbourhood where you do your business.– Rick Belsher

Some communities encourage residents to call dedicated abandoned cart hotlines. Others enforce targeted fines, building storage lots to impound stray carts, only releasing them when fees are paid. 

Some Canadian municipalities, including Ottawa and Halifax, charge retailers for the cost of collecting and storing carts. Other cities have legislated anti-theft measures, requiring stores to install systems that lock the cart’s wheels when they are pushed off store property.

In Edmonton, where the city sends recovered carts to the scrap yard without penalizing the owners, retailers are asking for continued leniency while some residents are calling for a more punitive approach.

Belsher said Edmonton should follow the lead of other jurisdictions and introduce fines. Edmonton retailers should be forced to pay $500 apiece for carts that have gone astray, he said.

“I don’t have any sympathy for these corporations because they just don’t seem to care,” said Belsher, 76.

“Respect the city and your neighbourhood where you do your business.”

The city does not have a specific bylaw pertaining to carts but manages them much like any other form of litter. Carts on city lands, reported through 311, are collected by city crews. Carts found on private property are usually picked up too, after a bylaw investigation.

In 2022, Edmonton received  2,399 complaints. City staff recovered 3,432 abandoned carts. 

As of early December, the city has received 1,298 complaints this year. City crews have recovered 3,185 carts.

The city says it doesn’t have the resources to return carts to retailers. Instead, they are scrapped and recycled for parts.

“There are many different types of carts from different businesses and the owners of many carts cannot be identified,” said Craig McKeown, branch manager of parks and roads services with the city.

“Many stores do not want abandoned carts to be returned. With independent ownership and operation of store franchises, there are often discrepancies between the same chain on whether or not they may want the carts back.” 

Abandoned carts are often filled with garbage, biohazards, and may have drug contamination or residue, a City of Edmonton branch manager said. (David Bajer/CBC)

Carts picked up by city crews are typically taken by truck to one of the city’s road maintenance facilities, where they are stored until they can be processed.

McKeown said it would be unsafe to put abandoned carts back into circulation. The city treats them as unsanitary waste, he said.

“Abandoned carts are often filled with garbage, biohazards and may have drug contamination or residue,” he said.

“The city cannot assure that carts are safe for recovery and reintegration into use, so they are treated as contaminated and recycled.”

McKeown said the city already has regulations in place, under its community standards bylaws, to manage waste and ensure Edmonton is kept clean.

CBC asked several major retailers to comment on their cart management strategies. Only Walmart replied. In a statement, the company said it relies on coin-operated carts and a cart collection service to manage the problem.

We’re frustrated as much as others are with carts being taken from our lots.– John Graham

John Graham, director of government relations with the Retail Council of Canada, said an increasing number of stores have installed locking systems or coin-deposit carts to deter theft but the methods are costly, not always effective, and often leave customers frustrated. 

He said fines punish retailers are already saddled with the cost of replacing stolen property. 

Graham said it takes about $350 to replace a single cart and retailers are losing thousands of dollars each year. 

“We’re frustrated as much as others are with carts being taken from our lots,” he said.

“We’re happy to work with cities and police services to come up with strategies … but it has to be a collaborative strategy as opposed to punishing, ultimately, the customers shopping in those stores.” 

Joanna Wong, a manager at the United Grocers supermarket, which has operated in Edmonton’s Chinatown since 1987, said carts disappear for a variety of reasons. 

Shoppers sometimes wheel them home and never bring them back. She said people with mobility challenges often have no other way to easily transport their purchases. 

The problem is also a symptom of social disorder in the core, Wong said. She believes the vast majority of discarded carts end up being used by people experiencing homelessness. 

She said that for her family business, carts have become too expensive to keep. The store couldn’t afford to install anti-theft technology or to replace the ones that had been stolen.  

“Every two to three years we would have to replenish, and then the last time, we were just tired,” she said. “Shopping carts are not cheap.” 

She said bringing in more carts would have undercut their bottom line. 

“The cost is too prohibitive,” she said. “We want to keep our prices low for the people in this area.”

Belsher, a retiree, regularly cleans a six-kilometre stretch of road near his home in the Hermitage neighbourhood.

When it comes to shopping carts, he believes the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

He keeps detailed logs of every piece of litter he collects, regularly calling in complaints to the city and often writing letters to major retailers, imploring them to keep better tabs on their trash. 

“The city can’t or won’t stand up to them and that’s what really frustrates me,” he said. “The city needs to get a spine.”

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