Don Cook pauses for a photograph where he was sweeping and cleaning out his Redemption Center in South Portland on Friday. Cook has closed Rolando’s Redemption Center after being in business for decades. Still attached to the window frame are containers not eligible for redemption. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When Don Cook began accepting redeemable bottles and cans at his South Portland shop in 1977, he didn’t anticipate how popular the exchange would become.

Last year alone, the Rolando’s Redemption Center processed roughly 4.5 million recyclables. The small site is one of a few hundred scattered across Maine, all of which have helped the state become one of the most successful places for recycling in the nation.

But employee shortages and inflation have caught up to neighborhood redemption centers like Cook’s. Earlier this month, Cook said it became clear he could no longer afford to continue accepting bottles and paying the two or three full-time employees he keeps on staff at any given time. His 45th year was his last.

“We’re done. Period,” Cook said Friday while cleaning up the site, which he first opened as a store selling sandwiches and pizzas.

Don Cook sweeps out Rolando’s Redemption Center in South Portland on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cook began accepting bottles and other containers around the same time Maine launched its “bottle bill” program in 1978, and Rolando’s became a redemption center about 15 years ago when Cook shuttered the store. 

Every time consumers in Maine buy a beverage, they pay a refundable deposit on the container. Under the bottle bill program, consumers can reclaim that deposit through local redemption centers, at certain grocery stores or at reverse-vending machines. A handful of other states have similar programs.


These redemption programs then give their returned recyclables to the bottling companies, who reimburse them for the 5 cent fee and also pay a 4.5 cent fee per container for shipping and handling.

The handling fee amount was last updated after legislative action in 2019, taking effect for all containers deposited after June 2020. But Cook and others say the state-mandated reimbursement rate hasn’t covered increasing labor costs, which have worsened since the pandemic began. 

An old closed sign hangs in the window at Rolando’s Redemption Center in South Portland on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

He estimates he’s employed at least a hundred redemption center workers in the last four decades, many of whom faced mental health and substance use related issues, or were coming out of incarceration. Cook said he’s disappointed that he won’t be able to offer jobs to those who need them the most. 

“It’s a great system and I hate to see it go down because of this,” he said.

From an environmental perspective, as centers like his close, there will be fewer places for Mainers to take their containers, Cook said.

As of July, there were 328 centers licensed by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection – 40 fewer than two years ago. Others have also likely closed, even though their licenses remain active.


Clynk, a new-age redemption service operating sites at 53 Hannaford supermarkets throughout Maine, shares similar concerns. 

“Mainers do a fantastic job with their redemptions, and we feel that a big part of that is this option for choice for our consumers,” said Dan Kiley, Clynk’s director of brand retail. “Clynk does not want to be the only redemption center option. We feel that small, local operations are a part of why Maine’s redemption program is so successful.”

On top of a 15 percent increase in deposits from a busy summer of tourism, Kiley said, Clynk has seen more business from customers who have lost the distribution centers they normally do business with, like Rolando’s. 

“It drives more traffic in our direction, but it’s not what we want to see,” Kiley said.

Combined with workforce shortages, Clynk workers have struggled to clear out their deposit centers fast enough. Patrons are leaving bags of recyclables outside the centers because there’s no room to deposit them. Bags that are being deposited are so overfilled that they’re bursting, creating a mess inside trucks and leading to broken and unusable containers and bagging.

Kiley said the company discourages people from overfilling bags and leaving them outside – largely because they’ve received reports of people stealing the bags of bottles and cans and redeeming them somewhere else.


Rolando’s Redemption Center in South Portland has closed after being in business for decades. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cook said temporarily increasing the handling costs that bottling companies pay redemption centers by half a cent, from 4.5 cents to 5 cents, would help offset the inflation impacts.

Bottling companies and other distributors who pass that cost onto their customers, however, have objected to previous requests for an increase in handling fees.

Before the Legislature last updated the bottle bill program in 2019, several Maine brewing companies and trade groups for distributors came together to testify against further increases. Many redemption center owners testified in support of an increase.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers Guild, told lawmakers that year that the breweries he represented “appreciate the role that redemption centers pay in the recycling process, and can relate to challenges they face in increased workforce costs, as our breweries are subject to the same challenges.”

“However,” Sullivan testified, “increasing the handling fee for bottles simply shifts the burden from one industry, redemption centers, to another, breweries and beverage manufacturers, as well as distributors.”

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