Shopping cart jail: Stores face fines to reclaim abandoned carts - even if they were stolen

It’s called shopping cart jail – a fenced in dirt lot hidden among the trees in the City of Federal Way.

The carts of all shapes and sizes were found abandoned by city workers on sidewalks, public parks, private and public property and deep in the woods where homeless encampments exist

Its population fluctuates from a couple of dozens to hundreds.

They are from Target, Ross, Safeway, Marshalls, T.J.Maxx, nearly every major retailer and supermarket that operates in the city.

They are all waiting to be bailed out by the stores.  The city charges $25 dollars each if the stores pick them up from jail.

For an additional $62 dollars, the city will delivered back to the store, with an added charge of $5-$10 per cart.

If the stores don’t claim them after 14 days, they will be destroyed, says Interim City Administrator Brian Davis – and the city will bill the store another $25 for their destruction.

"The intent of the program was to reduce the amount of carts that had been abandoned" says Davis.  The City created the impound program in 2018 as an incentive to store owners to pick up abandoned carts littering public areas.

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However, in light of an epidemic of unabated shoplifting including the theft of carts and a rising homeless population, some critical of the law want the city to cut the stores a break and give them back to the store for free.

"Give them back like an act of good will because it's penalizing the victims of theft," says David Zumwalt who went into shopping cart jail and posted what he found on Facebook.

He was homeless, living outside in the camps, an addict who stole to support his addiction and is now a drug abuse recovery counselor.  He’s also part of the citizens group Stand Up Federal way which routine goes and cleans up wetlands where camps were located.

"The drug addicts steal from the store, and then they steal the shopping cart, and they are never held responsible for their actions" he says. "It hurts the consumer because you go to the store there's no carts".

Davis says the program has been effective.  The city was picking up an average of 3,000 carts per year using volunteers before the ordinance was passed.   It now uses paid staff instead of volunteers and is picking up an average of 2,000 carts per year and averaging $40,000 in revenue from the fees sit charges.

"We get it but don’t necessary like it" say Melinda Merrill with the Northwest Grocers Association. "The problem has gotten a little bit worse with the increase in homelessness".

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Many cities have passed similar ordinances and some charge substantially more than Federal Way.  Longview also charges a $25 impound fee while Auburn’s is $30.  Renton and Lakewood charge $100 and if those cities pick up more than 12 carts a month, it’s $200 per cart.  Yakima charges $115 but waives the fee if a cart’s anti-theft locking device has been disabled.

Merrill says the industry is moving away from anti-theft locking devices because they are easily disabled.

"There were hundreds and most of them look totally functional," Zumwalt says of the carts in Federal Way’s shopping cart jail.

Functional is a key word because all cities have their ordinances the right to destroy the carts if the store doesn’t claim their carts in 14 days.  There are no provisions to auction them off like an impounded car that is not claimed or donate them to non-profits such as food banks.

"I think it’s ridiculous," says Kim Henish, store director of Marlene’s Market and Deli.  The store recently bought recycled carts from Texas at for just over $100 a piece instead of paying for brand new one which can run upwards to $400.

"We take count of our carts every night," she says. "We are a small business, fifty-dollars to destroy a cart is a lot to us, to Target and Safeway and Ross, not so much."

"I understand the reasoning for the fees, but I think they should also take into consideration the business" she says. "We see someone put their belongs in our cart, we don’t allow them to do that and take it back."

She says when confront most people give the cart back.

"We pick up every Tuesday and get 35 to 40 carts a day," says John Kalmback, the Solid Waste Director for the City of Renton and runs the cart retrial program.

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"We are seeing more shopping carts, and I’d say 99 percent are functional good carts and very expensive"

He says some stores do have a retrieval service to round up carts but not all of them.  Walmart just paid to get 46 carts back from Renton’s shopping cart jail he says.  Following the city’s law, that could have been as much as $8,000 if all the carts were pick up in the same month.

Carts that aren’t clearly labeled with the stores name go straight for disposal.  Kalmback says the city sends the carts to a metal recycler and doesn’t not charge the store a disposal fee since it profits from the recycling.

"That’s part that makes me really angry" says Henish.  "Carts are doing to the dump, it’s not environmentally friendly".

"The whole issue is just a bad cycle " says Merrill.  "I’m mean this is property that has been stolen from us and we are having to pay because it’s been stolen"

The Northwest Grocers Association has created a successful retrial program in Oregon and has plans to expand it to Washington State.   It involves special labeling of carts with scanable QR codes for anybody to easily report an abandoned cart.   A vendor contract with the Association will pick up the carts on a regular basis.  Safeway and Costco have agreed to use the new service she says which will be up and running later this year.

It's gotten to the point the stores can’t afford to ignore the issue of abandoned carts because some customers are having trouble finding carts.

"I've been a few grocery stores and there's no carts and I kind of know where some of them might be" says Kalmback.