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New Kiosks at Union Square Whole Foods Make Recycling a Nightmare, Critics Say

By DNAinfo Staff on April 15, 2010 11:31am  | Updated on April 15, 2010 2:40pm

Jonathan Willis and Verna Andrews try to navigate the automated recycling kiosk at Whole Foods in Union Square.
Jonathan Willis and Verna Andrews try to navigate the automated recycling kiosk at Whole Foods in Union Square.
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DNAinfo/Vinita Singla

By Vinita Singla

Special to DNAinfo

UNION SQUARE — Despite an eco-friendly mission statement that has made it the go-to grocery store for green-minded Manhattan shoppers, customers looking to recycle empty drink containers at Whole Foods' busy 14th Street hub face an uphill battle.

Up until three weeks ago, the Union Square mega store accepted glass, plastic and aluminum at the customer service station in exchange for the state-mandated cash deposit return. Now, only a select few recyclables are redeemable in person, while customers are directed to recycle everything else at new automated machines in the front entrance, Whole Foods officials said.

But recent attempts to use the two new recycling kiosks — or "greenopolis" machines — revealed a host of headaches for well-meaning recyclers.

Recyclers are having a tough time getting their deposit back with the new Whole Foods automated machine.
Recyclers are having a tough time getting their deposit back with the new Whole Foods automated machine.
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DNAinfo/Vinita Singla

Those who use the machines say they jam easily, fill up quickly, and require Whole Foods staffers to come and clean them out. They also reject standard recyclables accepted elsewhere, critics said.

“It’s not accepted at this location, which is bizarre because it’s the right kind of plastic,” said Jonathan Willis, 35, as he futilely scanned the UPC code on his Gatorade bottle Tuesday afternoon inside the Whole Foods entrance.

Willis said he came all the way from his home on the Upper West Side to try out the new machine, which is touted as the only one in the city. The dedicated recycler said he often carries around empty bottles until he can find a place to recycle them for fear of tossing them out.

After a try at the new system at Whole Foods, Willis was ready to take his recyclables elsewhere.

First Willis stepped up to the cheerfully-decorated machine and read the printed directions. He scanned the bar code on his empty plastic bottle under a reader to see if the electronic kiosk would recognize it.

After a series of attempts, all of which resulted in error messages, Willis realized he was standing at the machine that only accepted aluminum and glass. So he moved to the machine that accepted plastic and tried again. Yet another error message popped up, at which point he gave up on the Gatorade bottle and moved on to a Fiji water bottle, which registered on the first try. Then the machine pointed an arrow towards the hole where he deposited the bottle.

Next, Willis’ friend Verna Andrews tried depositing a series of plastic bottles, including some provided to her by a reporter. Her first two plastic water bottles went through fine, but her third triggered a “we’re sorry” message on the kiosk’s screen.

“Please contact a Whole Foods Market team member to scan the Master Tracking Pass to print your receipt,” Willis read aloud.

“It just gets packed pretty fast,” said a Whole Foods employee who arrived to unclog the machine. “There might have been a foreign object in it before,” he said.

Willis and Andrews were so fed up by the end of the process, they left without retrieving their receipt, worth 15 cents, from the machine. The kiosk also doles out points that can be put towards movie tickets and restaurants, according to the company Web site.

Error message on a Whole Foods recycling kiosk.
Error message on a Whole Foods recycling kiosk.
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DNAinfo/Vinita Singla

“In theory, it’s great, but if it gets backed up, like right now, we can’t do anything until we get the Whole Foods team member,” Willis said. “It creates a delay and backup — not very efficient.”

A Whole Foods spokesman said he wasn’t aware of any complaints.

“The machine accepts all the bottles sold in the store, so I’m not sure what the complaint is,” said Michael Sinatra, public relations manager for the Northeast region.

Sinatra said the machine holds up to 150 bottles, and has to be emptied several times daily.

“Because it’s by the door, it gets filled quickly,” he said.

He said customers who don’t have time to wait can drop off their recycling in bins around the store. Those bins don’t include a refund.

Sinatra said that the machine is “relatively new,” and added that he welcomes complaints so he can try to sort out the kinks.

But the machines, which he called a “great innovation,” are here to stay, Sinatra said. In fact, other Whole Foods locations in Manhattan, including the TriBeCa store, are planning to install greenopolis kiosks soon, he said.

“No timeline yet,” Sinatra said.