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Abandoned trolley
Demand is growing for supermarkets to look after their own trolleys. (Photo: Getty / Treatment: Archi Banal)

BusinessJanuary 23, 2023

‘Stop trashing New Zealand!’ Inside the abandoned shopping trolley backlash

Abandoned trolley
Demand is growing for supermarkets to look after their own trolleys. (Photo: Getty / Treatment: Archi Banal)

The stand-off continues, a petition is underway and one expert is fired up. The abandoned trolley situation appears to be worse than anyone realised.

Ellen Schindler has a good life. From her Sandringham home, she doesn’t work, instead spending most of her time volunteering at local organisations and tending to her expansive vege patch. “I have a very intense food forest in the backyard,” she said on a quiet weekday morning recently. When The Spinoff called, her biggest concern was an incoming call about a courier delivery.

But there is one thing that troubles her mind: abandoned shopping trolleys. That’s because she sees them everywhere: sitting on street corners, gathering rust in driveways, chucked into parks and clogging up waterways. It is, she says, a scourge on suburbs and streams, something she calls “an abuse of public space by commercial enterprises”.

One expert says it’s cheaper for supermarkets to replace its fleet than search and service abandoned trolleys. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

Schindler is something of an expert in the topic. Every time she sees a lost trolley, it reminds her of the five years she spent working in the pro-active compliance team at Auckland Council. There, she became well versed in the issue of stuff being left in places where it shouldn’t. Illegal suburban rubbish dumping came under her watch. So did missing traffic signs and cones.

But her biggest problem, by far, was abandoned shopping trolleys. “I put probably almost 25% of my time of a 40-hour work week into proving that supermarkets did not prevent people from taking trolleys, and if they were taken, they did not proactively do much to recover them from the public,” she says. Her work led to hearings, bylaws court action and many heated meetings with supermarket owners. Over five years, she met “so many unbelievably uncaring supermarket managers” that it still makes her shake her head.

Five years is a long time to gather stories and Schindler’s got plenty. She recounts hearings and court cases that attempted to force supermarkets to do something about the problem, to take responsibility for the issue. She built up a folder of 5,000 photographs, each documenting an abandoned trolley. Once, she hired a man to collect abandoned trolleys from five supermarkets over six weeks just to prove her point. He did this in three-hour stints twice a week. Over that time, he found 180 trolleys. Point proven, surely.

Enforcing action is difficult, though. The problem, Schindler says, is that shopping trollies are cheap. When they were made in New Zealand, they cost around $450 each. Now they’re imported from China, it’s more like $100. It’s not worth a store’s time and effort to search, rescue and service abandoned trollies, she claims. So people take their shopping home in them, then discard them. Then they end up clogging up parks, and dumped in streams, rivers or lakes. It’s here they cause the most damage. “They become a barrier and they increase flooding risk in the area where the water [backs] up.”

Schindler doesn’t see stores taking responsibility for that damage, or enough being done to solve the issue. It doesn’t make sense to her. There are simple, proactive ways supermarkets could deter trolleys from leaving their stores in the first place. Signs are one. Magnetic wheel locks are another. Collecting them quickly when they do get stolen is a third. Once a few are seen sitting around, she believes it sends a message to everyone else that taking trolleys home is OK. “The problem just grows if they’re not removed.”

Most of all, in an era where the environment and climate change is on everyone’s minds, she thinks it’s wasteful. “I find it very disturbing because … I still value $100,” she says. “It all still puzzles me because at no point is the whole picture rational”. Ask her if she thinks the problem’s gotten worse in the ensuing years, and she says: “It’s bigger. Much bigger.”

Schindler felt compelled to get in touch, to speak out, to try and do something about the problem she’s spent 15 years thinking about, after hearing about Ethan Smith. The West Auckland resident is staging a one-person protest by collecting every abandoned Westgate Countdown trolley he can find and stashing it in his backyard, a plight highlighted by The Spinoff late last year. Smith says residents walk their shopping trolley home, then leave them around the streets. That’s when kids get hold of them and throw them off a nearby bridge for fun.

So Smith goes fishing for trolleys using a grappling hook and rope to pull them out of the bush. His kids help yank them up and his dog Huki hauls them home. So far, he’s at a standoff with Countdown and won’t let them take them until they put more effort in to solve the problem. Why’s he doing this? “I’ve been tidying up for years now and I’ve had enough of doing their job for them,” he says. “You only see the size of the problem when you’ve got all the trolleys combined.” By the end of the year, he had nearly 30, most of them from Countdown.

Supermarket trolleys
Ethan Smith is collecting Countdown trolleys in his backyard. (Photo: Facebook)

His story caught someone else’s eye. Jacqui Knight was so inspired she started a petition. Called, “Stop trashing New Zealand!” it calls on supermarkets to take responsibility for their trolleys at all times. “Many New Zealanders work tirelessly, many voluntarily, to protect our flora and fauna, to address sustainability and to fight climate change,” Knight writes. “There are other selfish, lazy and irresponsible individuals who don’t care about the environment:  they misappropriate supermarket/store trolleys, dumping them elsewhere when they’re no longer needed.”

Knight calls on New Zealand stores to take action. Overseas, locking and tracking systems are available that deter trolley thefts. Schindler believes something as simple as improved signage could work. Both say supermarkets and other stores that offer trolleys to customers aren’t doing enough. “We call on New Zealand’s stores to do something about this untenable situation,” petitions Knight.

Jacqui Knight’s petition calls on stores to take responsibility for their trolleys.

Matthew Grainger believes Countdown’s network of 185 stores is doing enough. The supermarket’s director of format and property is in charge of the contracting crew that heads out and collects abandoned trolleys notified through its helpline (0800 40 40 40) or via its chatbot Olive. Grainger has a handle on just how big the problem is. It’s massive. “Our contractors collect around 80,000 [trolleys] a year,” he says. That’s nearly 220 trolleys departing from their stores every single day. When pushed, he admits: “That is a lot.”

Grainger doesn’t know what else they could do. They pick trolleys up as soon as they’re told about them, and search for those they’re not. They try to educate shoppers with signs and phone numbers printed on handles. As for those mechanical locking mechanisms, they’re trialling them at several stores. But it’s proving difficult to find the perfect solution. “If you lift the trolley up over that, you’ll be able to take it out beyond the perimeter,” he says. He also wonders how shoppers parked across the road will get groceries to their car. “It’s not foolproof … we’re doing everything we can.”

He denies many of the claims made by others quoted in this story. He says it’s not cheaper for stores to simply replace all missing trolleys. He doesn’t believe abandoned trolleys lead to more abandoned trolleys. And he points out that some of the behaviour Countdown is dealing with is extreme. “People throw them off bridges,” he says. “The suggestion is that more signage might be helpful, but I think the types of people that are throwing trolleys off bridges might not pay much attention to that sign.”

Back in West Auckland, Smith continues to add to his collection at his Westgate home. When The Spinoff reached out for an update recently, he said Countown still hadn’t picked up their trolleys. “Nothing yet, still waiting,” he texted. He’s repeatedly asked management what they’re doing to stop the problem, and says he hasn’t yet had a reply.

Grainger disputes this and says Countdown staff have been in touch with Smith. He claims Smith told them he won’t return their trolleys until he’s paid as a contractor. But when they offered him a job with their trolley-collecting contracting team, Grainger says Smith told them he was too busy. “He’s refused to work with us,” says Grainger.

So Smith’s holding onto his lost trolleys, wheeling them home whenever he finds another one, his one-person protest continuing with no end his sight. Since we last spoke, Smith’s added another seven, taking his trolley collection to nearly 40. His backyard is starting to resemble the cover of this Gomez b-sides compilation. They’re clogging up his backyard, and are a hassle to move whenever he needs to mow his lawn.

When Smith first told his story, someone suggested he use them as the start of a side hustle by converting them into hangi pit food cages. It’s a great suggestion, but Smith says he can’t. “I’m just too busy,” he texted when asked if this was an option. Instead, he has a counter offer: “Happy to koha them for someone else to do that.”

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