October 20, 2007
Success comes in bottles for redemption center
Hillside Returns set to expand at Owego site
By Charles Erickson
OWEGO -- Hillside Returns opened on the first day of last April and before the inaugural customers had entered, the owner wondered if he was a fool to launch a bottle-and-can redemption center here.
When Roy Eiklor purchased the North Avenue property last year, he'd intended to use it for a small restaurant.
But the first day's commerce was steady, and summertime numbers were astounding.
"We've done over 2 million cans since April," Eiklor said.
Later this fall or early in the winter, Hillside will transfer to a larger facility to be constructed behind the existing building.
Expansion has come quickly to an outfit that makes just 2 cents on every can or bottle.
"It's got to be a high-volume business because it is very labor intensive," Eiklor said while sitting in his office. Beyond the door could be heard the tinks and thumps of cans and bottles rapidly being counted and tossed into bags.
Eiklor had experience with plastics and metals before opening Hillside Returns. Since 1990, he has bought bales of the materials from collection centers around the U.S. and resold them to recyclables mills. However, he only acts as a middleman and engages other firms to move the goods.
Hillside's competition comes from other redemption centers, and from supermarket machines that accept deposit containers and issue store chits. Eiklor said certain customers hate using the automated systems.
"With some of the quantities that we get in, a person would be there all day putting cans in the machine," he explained. "We'll have them counted in five minutes, 10 minutes."
The owner suspects most customers live in the eastern portion of Tioga County, but doesn't know for certain because there is no paperwork associated with each transaction.
People usually arrive with enough bottles and cans to make a trip worthwhile. Some have small bags, while others pull in with pickups heaped with 4,000 or more containers.
A truck and trailer are dispatched to retrieve large quantities from commercial and residential customers. The Owego Methodist Church had 9,000 empties after a function earlier this year, according to Eiklor, and a man in Candor called to have 15,000 bottles and cans taken away.
Redemption centers receive their two-cent fee only after a complicated process has been concluded. Containers are sorted by type and distributor.
Cans of Budweiser and Busch get mixed together in bags of 300, because they are Anheuser-Busch brands. Plastic bottles of Diet Coke and Sprite are placed in Coca-Cola bags.
Glass beer bottles are sent back in their cases -- though the original brand doesn't have to match its case. As with the plastics and aluminum, the glass must be grouped by distributor.
Many customers redeem deposits on containers after rinsing them with water. Others bring them in with a swig or two of liquid remaining inside.
On a recent morning Hillside Returns smelled like a brewery.
"It's nasty stuff. Oh, terrible," Eiklor said of the dirtier cans and bottles that have been tendered. "Some of them have sat around for a while."
Workers, two full-timers and eight part-time employees, dress for their shifts in casual clothes.
With its small quarters, Hillside Returns is forced to hold its intake in every available space. Bags of bottles and cans are kept in the basement, cases of glass bottles are stacked in a rear room, and more containers are stored in a trailer out back.
A contractor's truck arrives on Mondays and Thursdays to collect the containers of all distributors. They are not sent back to the bottlers and canners, but instead get crushed, baled, melted and reused -- possibly as something other than beverage containers.
Eiklor receives payment 10 to 15 days later. He gets seven cents per container, his fee plus the five cents he paid to consumers at redemption time.
Some patrons, unsure of how the deposit law works, have lugged all their drink containers to Hillside's front counter.
"They think since we're a bottle and can redemption center, we'll give them a nickel for everything," Eiklor said.
The New York state Assembly has passed a measure that would expand the state's deposit law to include containers of water, juices and other noncarbonated beverages. Should it become law, Eiklor predicted that "our business will more than double."
When Hillside transfers to its new building, its original home will not stand derelict.
Just as he did last year, the proprietor is considering opening an eatery that specializes in lunches and breakfasts. Eiklor said highway traffic and nearby offices make this a good spot for an epicurean enterprise.
So a restaurant will belatedly open at 442 North Ave., unless the owner thinks of another business that could fare better in the small building.