Our Bottles Ourselves
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By Bryan Pfeiffer
Bobby Martino’s office is a menagerie of empties: sticky bottles, clacking cans and the aroma of stale beer.
Here in the bottle room of M&M Beverage and Redemption Center in Barre Town, stale beer is the least of Martino’s concerns. Sorting returnable cans and bottles is a job with occupational hazards.
Broken glass is a problem. But it’s not as bad as maggots. And maggots aren’t as bad as “chew bottles,” essentially returnable spittoons. Those are pretty rank. But certainly not as creepy as when someone hauled in a load of about 100 beer bottles, many containing used hypodermic needles. At least needles aren’t as pungent as dead mice.
“There’s nothing like the smell of a dead mouse mixed with stale beer,” says Martino, 24, a calm, authoritative bottle clerk who takes pride in his palace of glass, plastic and aluminum.
Of course, a dead mouse has nothing on a live snake.
In his three years of sorting, Martino has seen it all. But he is hardly unique. His insights from the bottle room at M&M are common to most any redemption center in Vermont, insights deeper than you might think. Martino and his colleagues share a particular view of us. They see our character expressed in what we drink and what we return for a handful of nickels.
Vermont’s bottle law turns 40 this year. By all accounts it has helped to relieve the landscape of discarded beverage containers. It also spawned a brotherhood – mostly teenage boys or young men – of bottle professionals who sort what we dump onto their slimy countertops.
They sort with skill and dexterity. The hazards notwithstanding, the sorting has become somewhat easier over the years. Most of the state’s 110 certified redemption centers can now mix various brands of soda and beer containers from different distributors before selling them off to a huge recycling outfit. In industry parlance, the mix is called “the comingle.” Redemption centers like M&M sell cans and bottles in the comingle for their nickel plus a 3.5-cent handling charge (or 4 cents for some brands that must be sorted separately). At the heart of the operation are the bottle jockeys.
“They are really the people who make it work,” says Cathy Stacy, administrator of what is known officially as the Vermont Beverage Container Law. “It’s a nasty job.”
When a customer dumps a clinking, clanking load of bottles and cans (and sometimes an unexpected animal), Martino goes to work. With well-practiced grabs, he’ll seize at least 10 plastic bottles at a time, pivot and then plunge them upright into boxes. Cans and bottles of like sizes are later combined into the comingle. All Coke products get their own comingle because the company itself buys back its own returnables.
But Martino doesn’t really need to think much about where each item goes. In the pile before him, he spies a label and instinctively knows where to send it. That allows him to focus on the count.
“You have to be able to multi-task,” he says. “I think about the count. I can just concentrate on getting the count right.”
Most of the guys count by fives. “We did have a guy who counted by twos,” he recalls, graciously, “and he was quicker than the guys who counted by fives.” And, yes, customers sometimes dispute the count. When M&M had someone who regularly argued the count, store owner Gilles Moreau stood with his bottle guys, as he often does, and politely told the customer to take his returnables elsewhere.
Moreau reserves particular faith and fondness for Martino, whom he has awarded the rare dual responsibility of bottle clerk and night manager out in the store.
“He works hard; he’s a good kid,” says Moreau, who’s been around the beverage business for decades. “He’s got a dream of owning this store. I laugh about it. I had the same dream when I started out.”
So what do we drink? According to Martino’s unscientific tally, we drink both kinds of beer: Bud and Bud Lite. Budweiser in 12-ounce cans is the most common beverage to come across Martino’s desk and into the bins. After Bud, we drink Coke. A lot of Coke, in cans, says Martino, a proud new father who with mom Charlotte named their son Blake (not Bud).
So besides keeping hypodermic needles and mice from our returnables, what else can we consumers do for Bobby Martino and his colleagues? How can we change? What is our communal sin?
Dirty bottles, particularly in springtime.
“You get a lot of dirty, muddy, messy, smelly bottles that sit over the winter in snow and at the side of the road,” Martino explains. Residual beer is bad enough any time of year. Soda is no better. “Even if it’s a soda bottle that someone threw in the bin when it was half full, it makes all the cans very, very sticky,” he says. “You go to throw them – and they stick to your glove.”
“So rinse ‘em out,” he says. “It’ll make the counting process go a lot quicker.”
Making the process quicker is one of Martino’s goals. So, in the interest of speed, can consumers help bottle clerks by segregating our cans from our bottles, our Coke from our Bud, and then presenting them separately at the counter? Not really.
“That’s what we get paid to do,” says Martino. “We get to sort ‘em.”
Martino also gets to be a benefactor. A theme at redemption centers are good causes and charities – the Shriners, Project Graduation, Boy Scout Troop #714 and many others – that stand to benefit when we drop off bottles and choose to donate our refund. When customers leave bottles without specifying any particular charity, Martino has lately been preferentially directing the money to help a local kid with leukemia.
But most customers come in, dump their bottles and get a slip with a cash total that, about half the time, Martino says, “gets reinvested in the store.”
And one time a load of bottles included a live garter snake. Martino doesn’t care much for snakes. He shouted, “Snake!” to his rookie co-worker and then backed away, nearly knocking over a rack of bottles. The rookie managed to corral the snake into a plastic bag and even show it around the store before letting it go out back.
“I made the new kid grab it,” Martino says with a grin.
At the redemption center, seniority has its benefits.