FEDERAL TRACK, Wash. – It’s called the Grocery Cart Jail – a fenced-in dirt lot hidden among the trees in the town of Federal Way.
Carts of all shapes and sizes have been found abandoned by city workers on sidewalks, public parks, private and public properties and deep in the woods where homeless encampments exist.
Its population fluctuates from a few dozen to hundreds.
They come from Target, Ross, Safeway, Marshalls, TJMaxx, almost 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 each if the stores pick them up in jail.
For an additional $62, the city will be delivered to the store, with an additional $5-10 per cart.
If stores don’t claim them after 14 days, they will be destroyed, Acting City Administrator Brian Davis says — and the city will charge the store an additional $25 for their destruction.
“The intent of the program was to reduce the number of carts that had been abandoned,” Davis explains. The City created the impoundment program in 2018 to encourage store owners to pick up abandoned carts that litter public spaces.
However, in light of an unabated shoplifting epidemic, including cart theft and a rise in homelessness, some critics of the law want the city to cut stores a hiatus and return to the store for free.
“Make them an act of goodwill because it penalizes victims of theft,” says David Zumwalt who went to prison for carts and posted what he found on Facebook.
He was homeless, living on the outside in the camps, a drug addict who stole to support his addiction and is now a drug counselor. He is also part of the Stand Up Federal way citizen group whose routine goes and cleans up the wetlands where the camps used to be.
“Drug addicts steal from the store, then they steal the shopping cart, and they’re never held accountable for their actions,” he says. “It hurts the consumer because you go to the store there are no carts”.
Davis says the program has been effective. The city was picking up an average of 3,000 carts a year using volunteers before the ordinance was passed. It now uses paid staff instead of volunteers and recovers an average of 2,000 carts per year and generates an average of $40,000 in revenue from headquarters fees.
“We get it, but we don’t necessarily like it,” says Melinda Merrill of the Northwest Grocers Association. “The problem has gotten a bit worse with the rise in homelessness.”
Many cities have passed similar ordinances and some charge significantly more than Federal Way. Longview also charges a $25 impound fee while Auburn is $30. Renton and Lakewood charge $100 and if those towns pick up more than 12 carts per month, it’s $200 per cart. Yakima charges $115 but waives the fee if a cart’s anti-theft lock has been disabled.
Merrill says the industry is moving away from anti-theft locks because they are easily disabled.
“There were hundreds of them and most of them seemed fully functional,” Zumwalt said of the carts in the Federal Way Cart Jail.
Functional is a key word as all cities have their ordinances the right to destroy carts if the store does not claim their carts within 14 days. There is no provision for selling them at auction like an impounded car that is unclaimed or donating them to non-profits like food banks.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” says Kim Henish, store manager of Marlene’s Market and Deli. The store recently purchased recycled carts from Texas for just over $100 apiece instead of paying for a brand new one that can cost up to $400.
“We count our carts every night,” she says. “We’re a small business, fifty dollars to destroy a cart is a lot for us, for 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 putting their things in our basket, we don’t allow them to do that and take it back.”
She says when most people are confronted, they give up the cart.
“We pick up every Tuesday and get 35 to 40 carts a day,” says John Kalmback, the City of Renton’s solid waste manager and who leads the cart retest program.
“We are seeing more shopping carts, and I would say 99% are good, functional and very expensive carts”
He says some stores have a pick-up service to collect carts, but not all. Walmart just paid to retrieve 46 carts from the Renton Cart Jail, he says. According to city law, this could have been up to $8,000 if all the carts had been picked up in the same month.
Carts that are not clearly labeled with the name of the store are directly eliminated. Kalmback says the city sends the carts to a metal recycler and doesn’t charge the store a disposal fee since it profits from the recycling.
“That’s the part that really pisses me off,” Henish says. “The carts make dumps, it’s not ecological”.
“The whole thing is just a bad cycle,” Merrill says. “I mean it’s property that was stolen from us and we have to pay because it was stolen”
The Northwest Grocers Association has created a successful retest program in Oregon and plans to expand it to Washington State. This involves special tagging of carts with scannable QR codes so anyone can easily report an abandoned cart. A supplier contract with the Association will pick up the carts on a regular basis. Safeway and Costco have agreed to use the new service, which it says will be operational later this year.
It’s gotten to the point where stores can no longer afford to ignore the abandoned cart problem as some customers struggle to find carts.
“I’ve been to a few grocery stores and there are no carts and I kind of know where some of them might be,” Kalmback says.