Why A Stray Phoenix Shopping Cart Is Both Nuisance And Mercy Machine

By Bret Jaspers
Published: Monday, March 19, 2018 - 5:05am
Updated: Monday, March 19, 2018 - 10:41am

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The supermarket El Rancho loses about 30 shopping carts a week. They recover carts via Arizona Cart Services.
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
The supermarket El Rancho loses about 30 shopping carts a week. They recover carts via Arizona Cart Services.

Shopping carts dot the landscape of greater Phoenix. To some, they’re litter. To others, they’re an expense. And to still others, a shopping cart is a lifeline.

Arguably the most jarring place to see a shopping cart is in one of Phoenix’s canals. It can evoke a sigh, a laugh, or maybe just a simple thought: "gross."

Thankfully, the carts make it out. On a recent spring day, John Wirtjes, a water group representative for Salt River Project, was tackling a two-mile stretch of SRP’s canal that borders Cortez Park. He scooped out the carts with a backhoe and deposited them in a companion dump truck.

Wirtjes said he planned to remove 40 to 50 shopping carts from the canal along that span.

A shopping cart in the SRP Canal bordering Cortez Park in Phoenix.
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
A shopping cart in the SRP Canal bordering Cortez Park in Phoenix.

"To do the heavier cleaning like you see now with heavy equipment and dump trucks, we come through certain areas probably every second or third month," he said.

But how do the carts get in the canal? Well, it’s not easy to book someone who actually pushed a cart into the canal, but there are plenty of people who pay attention when they wander off.

One such person is Phillip Vigil, the store director at El Rancho, a supermarket at 19th and Dunlap avenues.

"We could lose on an average of 30 carts a week," he said. "Lost, destroyed, damaged, in canals, abandoned, stripped, or picked up by someone else and taken to other areas of the city."

To get back those 30 carts a week, Vigil hires a service. It finds El Rancho carts and returns them to his store twice a day, at $20 per delivery. El Rancho also has a worker monitor and collect carts in the parking lot. In all, it costs at least $150 per day "to keep your carts secure, keep them clean, keep them from being a nuisance in the community."

The service Vigil hires is Arizona Cart Services (ACS), where Dan Tennessen is director.

"We average 9,000 carts a week off the streets of Phoenix and Tucson," said Tennessen. ACS now services Yuma and Sierra Vista as well.

Tennessen said he couldn’t disclose a per-cart or per-delivery charge, in part because stores negotiate all different kinds of service and payment agreements.

But if a retailer doesn’t hire ACS, another collection service, or collect the carts itself, the city of Phoenix will charge it $50 a cart. The city increased the fine last year. Out of thousands of stores, only eight locations got a fine in 2016 and five in 2017.

Tennessen said some stores use battery-powered wheel locks to control their carts, although that’s not a universal strategy.

"There are neighborhoods where retailers don’t use a locking system because that’s truly the only way for their customers to get their groceries home," he said, like parts of Scottsdale with high numbers of retirees or lower middle-class neighborhoods, where residents can’t afford a car.

So a stray cart can be more than a safety hazard or a piece of litter.

Buffalo artist Julian Montague reached the same conclusion when he did his taxonomy of carts, called Stray Shopping Cart Project.

Phoenix resident Boom Boom, who is homeless, says he
(Photo by Bret Jaspers - KJZZ)
Phoenix resident Boom Boom, who is homeless, says he'd love to shake the hand of whoever made the shopping cart he uses. "It's saving my life."

"People appropriate them, use them, move things around, then put them back on the street, Montague said. "Sometimes people [even] chop them apart and make new things out of them. They’re this weirdly versatile object that exists with this kind of freedom."

At Cortez Park, a man named Boom Boom showed me his shopping cart while others fixed their bikes.

"I got tires, I got clothes, I got my bags, and I’m walking," Boom Boom said. "This is as close to transportation as I can get."

Boom Boom, a drummer and singer, lost his housing after his marriage ended. He found the cart close to Thunderbird just when he needed it. Boom Boom called shopping carts "mercy machines." He didn’t have much patience for people who throw carts in the canal.

"You can’t blame the cart. You can only blame the people," he insisted. "The carts are doing what [they’re] supposed to do. Carrying things. And whoever made them I’d love to shake his hand. And tell him thank you. [Because] it’s saving my life."

Yes, Boom Boom said, he didn’t pay for the cart. He wants to use it, and then return it to the corner where he found it. And maybe it’ll then find its way back to the store.

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Why A Stray Shopping Cart Is Both Nuisance And Mercy Machine