Published stories

Recycling centers take cans, bottles to the bank

The Can King

Published in the Democrat and Chronicle Sept. 8, 2012

By JEFFREY BLACKWELL/STAFF WRITER

When Zachary Romano graduated from the College at Brockport two years ago he was looking for something he could really enjoy.

“There was a few jobs out there, but nothing I really liked — lots of sales positions and I really didn’t want to do sales,” said Romano, 22, who has a bachelor’s degree in business and finance. “I couldn’t really find anything I wanted to do, so I decided to open up a business.”

Romano’s company deals in pennies, nickles and thousands of discarded cans and plastic bottles customers drop off by the bag-full or truck-full at a Fairport store for redemption of the state’s 5 cent deposit.

Can Kings is a business of slim margins reliant on generating great volume , but Romano is slowly growing the company, like many others expanding into eco-friendly markets across Rochester and the nation.

Getting dirty

Can Kings and other private recycling redemption centers are good examples of how low-tech ideas can find a niche in the market.

Consider a few facts.

In the United States more than 61 billion aluminum beverage cans were recycled in 2011, that’s a rate of just over 65 percent, according to a recent study by the Aluminum Association, Can Manufacturers Institute. Americans also use about 29 billion plastic beverage bottles every year, with about 73 percent ending up in landfills.

In 2009, New York expanded the state bottle deposit laws to include a 5-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda cans and bottles, which includes more than 3 billion bottles and cans in New York. And the legislation is partly responsible for the creation of more than 100 new private redemption centers across the state, including Can Kings and others in the Rochester region.

Romano said people are always asking how he makes money from collecting and paying people for their beverage cans and bottles.

“People come in instead of going to Wegmans or other grocery stores, and instead of the machines we are the machines,” he said. “When we do it we take your bags, you do not have to touch them, we count them out real quick pay you cash for them and you get the nickle for everything you bring in and sometimes we have 6-cent specials.”

Young kings

Private redemption centers make money by doing the work of separating cans and bottles by distributors, including Pepsi, Coke, Wegmans and dozens of others. In return, Can Kings receives the nickle deposit back from the distributors with a handling fee.

“It’s more convenient for the customer and we are making money as well,” Romano said. “You are literally making pennies a can, but you have to think people drink and it’s a very repeat business and you need to do tens-of-thousands of cans.”

Can Kings processes between 70,000 and 100,000 cans and bottles a week or up to 400,000 a month. The center also takes in electronics, which are bundled and picked up by Sunnking Electronics Recycling in Brockport. They have taken in nearly 130,000 pounds of electronics since opening 9 months ago.

The work is done by Romano and three high school students who work for him. He plans to hire a couple additional employees in the next several months.

Inside the center on Route 31A, bags of cans and bottles are stacked floor to ceiling against the walls and in a back in a store room waiting for pickup by distributors. More bags collected from golf courses and other venues await sorting.

Karen Donahower and her daughter Olivia walk into the center with several full trash and plastic grocery bags of cans and bottles. Employees Mark Berndt, 17, of Irondequoit and Mike Sanseverino, 16, of Fairport, rip the bags open over a long sorting table and in a few minutes have sorted through the bottles and cans deposited them into large boxes and hand Donahower, $11.80 for 236 items.

“This goes a lot faster than taking them over to the machines at the store, which can often be full and this is an easy in and out,” she said. “We bring a lot of things here, old computers and monitors and keyboards. And when the corner of the garage is full with cans and bottle we come here.”

New business

There are several private redemption centers in the area, including EZ Bottle & Can Return in Fairport, Henrietta Redemption Center and Ridge Nickleback in Spencerport and Newark, Wayne County.

Laura and Tim DeRycke, the owners of Ridge Nickleback, opened their first center in Spencerport in 2011, following the passage of the Bottle Bill by the state Legislature in 2009. A second center was opened later that year.

“The Bottle Bill made it easier for redemption centers to make money so we jumped on the idea that nobody else was doing it in Rochester and pretty quickly we opened a shop,” said Tim DeRycke. “People are always amazed how this works and how many other people walk through the door while they are there. Business has been very good this year and we have broken some of our goals.”

Making a splash in eco-friendly businesses is becoming a more difficult task because of the influx of new high-tech ideas, start-up companies in alternative energy, nature friendly products, organic farming and massive corporate advertising campaigns to look “green’ to consumers.

But these local business owners making money a few pennies at a time feel there is still opportunities in the industry for people with innovating ideas and an eye for providing a service to fill a consumer need.

“The recycling business has already become so huge compared to what it was ten years ago, who would ever think you could make money from cans,” Romano said. “I feel like the opportunities are endless. Soon all bottles (sport drinks, juice and liquor) will be added to the deposit law and the recycling will be never ending and soon everything will be recycled.”