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Redeeming Qualities: Springfield, Vt., Couple Build a Business on Bottles and Cans

  • Jacob Trombley, of Springfield, Vt., stands with his wife, Kim Trombley, and their two sons, Abel, left, 2, and Lawson, 4, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the Hartford Transfer/Recycling Center in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hollie Halfenger, of Springfield, Vt., sorts redeemable cans on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the Hartford Transfer/Recycling Center in Hartford, Vt. Jacob and Kim Trombley, of Springfield, recently opened the redemption center -- their third location in Vermont -- at the facility. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jacob Trombley, of Springfield, Vt., counts redeemable glass bottles on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the Hartford Transfer/ Recycling Center in Hartford, Vt. Jacob and Kim Trombley, of Springfield, recently opened the redemption center -- their third location in Vermont -- at the facility. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hollie Halfenger, of Springfield, Vt., sorts redeemable bottles and cans on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017, at the Hartford Transfer/Recycling Center in Hartford, Vt. Jacob and Kim Trombley, of Springfield, recently opened the redemption center -- their third location in Vermont -- at the facility. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, November 19, 2017

Springfield, Vt. — On a recent Monday afternoon inside the Springfield Redemption Center on Chester Road, the clinking sound of aluminum and glass fills the small room as workers sort and bag thousands of redeemable cans and bottles.

Brought in by customers to be redeemed, the containers are first dumped into small totes, counted and separated  — the valid ones from the invalid  — then tossed into a large, shallow circular bin.

Employees pluck the containers from the “wheel” as it spins, and drop them into bags labeled by material, size and distributor — Coke, Pepsi, Nestle and more. Full bags are then pulled, tied at the top and moved to another room for pick up by Tomra, a recycling company from New York, which is hired by distributors as a third-party handler.

Standing in the pickup area, co-owner Jacob Trombley counts about 50, 30- to 50-gallon bags.

“This is just what we collected this morning,” Trombley said over the din of the operation. “In the summertime, there is a narrow walkway through here three times a week,” with bags of containers piled on either side. “That is how many cans and bottles we get. We fill three 18-wheelers a week.”

Trombley and his wife, Kim, owners of Vermont Redemption Inc., bought the Springfield operation, along with one in Bradford, Vt., from Arthur Carroll in March and on Nov. 1, opened a third location at the transfer and recycling center in Hartford. (White River Redemption, formerly located at the transfer center, has moved and opened up shop next to the Listen Furniture Store.) The Trombleys have eight employees, nine in the summer months.

“We were looking to branch out,” said Kim Trombley, in an interview in the apartment above the Springfield center where the couple live with their two young children. “The more convenient redemption is, the more we can capture of that product by making it easier for people to redeem.”

Volume Is the Key

Jacob Trombley grew up in the redemption business. His father has owned an operation in Vergennes, Vt., for 35 years and the two worked together for five years before Trombley and his wife struck out on their own and formed Vermont Redemption Inc. The couple have also owned an ice cream shop in Vergennes the last four summers.

With just 5 cents on cans and bottles and 15 cents on liquor bottles — wine and hard cider bottles, water, milk, juice, sports drinks and other noncarbonated beverages are excluded from Vermont’s bottle bill — the business model depends on volume to generate revenue.

Under Vermont’s bottle bill, enacted in 1972, consumers of certain beverages in cans and bottles, including liquor, beer, wine coolers, soft drinks and other carbonated beverages, pay a 5 cent deposit with the purchase. The money goes from the retailer back to the distributor, such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi. When a container is redeemed, that nickel goes in the opposite direction, either to a retailer or redemption center, and then back to the consumer.

“We get paid back the 5 cents for every can, and on top of that we make a handling fee on every individual container,” Jacob Trombley said. “It is not very much. It is pennies. So you have to do a lot of volume.”

The Springfield center, with four to five employees, is the busiest of the three, especially during the warm months when the small parking lot could have up to 12 cars at one time.

“In the winter it slows down. People don’t want to get out. But in the spring, it is a madhouse,” he said. “I am paying out $1,100 to $1,200 or $1,300 a day during the week, and $2,000 on the weekend.” Based on 5 cents a bottle, that amounts to some 20,000-40,000 containers a day.

While some people pocket the money, others choose to donate it to nonprofit organizations. Flipping the pages of small notebook, Trombley ticks off the names of organizations that he has been instructed to give the money to, including Meals on Wheels, the Vermont Foodbank, Habitat for Humanity, the Shriners, animal hospitals and humane societies.

Checking Closely

At the redemption center, employees have to check each container individually.

“It is very hard to read,” Trombley said, holding an empty can of Coke with the states and redemption amount stamped on the top. “We have to check all of these, so they don’t make it easy for us.”

Vermont’s beverage container law allows the redemption of containers that were sold in Vermont and carry the Vermont refund message. As one example of the challenge he faces, Trombley said, he has had people bring in Market Basket-brand soda cans that are stamped with “Vt. 5 cents” but were sold in New Hampshire, which does not have a bottle bill.

“There are no Market Baskets in Vermont,” Trombley said, pointing out that distributors do not want the added cost of producing different containers based on the state.

If a container that cannot be redeemed is inadvertently accepted, the Trombleys have to eat the loss. (There’s a special bin for rejects.)

A beverage container such as Coke and Pepsi stamped with states and deposit amounts could have been bought in New Hampshire but Trombley said there is no way to tell.

When the bags are picked up by Tomra, several will be randomly tagged and audited for accuracy.

“Our numbers are really good,” Trombley said.

Expanding the Bottle Bill

Trombley said he would like to see the list of redeemable containers expanded under the bill, not only for his business but for the environment as well.

“This water bottle is redeemable in New York,” he said, holding up a plastic Poland Springs bottle. “They just added water bottles to the bottle bill there and if they did it here, it (the business) would explode.”

People bring in loads of water bottles but they can’t be redeemed. While many are recycled, a lot end up in the dump. “This state is so green so it is frustrating,” Trombley said.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group in Montpelier is a nonprofit consumer and environmental advocacy organization that strongly supports expansion of the bottle bill to include other glass and plastic containers, such as wine, juices, water and ice teas.

Johanna de Graffenreid, environmental advocate for VPIRG, said times have changed with the proliferation of plastic containers, so it only makes sense for the bottle bill to “keep up with the times” and add water bottles and all other glass and plastic containers.

“It is a natural progression,” she said.

According to its website, VPIRG estimates 100 million containers would be kept out of landfills and off roadsides if the list of redeemable containers in the bill were expanded. But standing in the way is “big beverage,” she said. “Expansion has been continually opposed by industry.”

“They lobby against it pretty hard,” Trombley said. Distributors “try to get rid of it every year. If we didn’t have VPIRG, we probably wouldn’t be here.”

According to VPIRG, 85 percent of containers covered by the bottle bill are recycled, compared with 36 percent for other containers,

“What we have redeemed since 1972 could fill approximately three Empire State buildings,” de Graffenreid said. “Those are bottles and cans that would have been all over the roadsides and in our state parks. It has been incredibly effective.”

Trombley said he often spots ice tea bottles on the roadside but rarely a redeemable container.

“I see people go up and down the road with shopping carts and that is what they are doing, collecting cans and bottles. My dad bought his first bike with bottle money in New York. You’ve got a whole state looking for those nickels and it promotes recycling.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com