Shopping cart

Abandoned But Not Forgotten: Spokane Valley Could Tackle The Shopping Cart Problem

Once you start looking, they’re not hard to find.

On Monday afternoon, a few sat in an empty lot in front of Walmart. A trio, full of rubbish, lined up next to some bins on Custer Road. And the west side of Spokane Valley, along Sprague Avenue, was littered with shopping carts.

Advance Auto Parts managing director Jhonny Montufar estimated he had seen up to 100 shopping carts abandoned in the area at one time. They are usually eliminated after a few days.

“It really doesn’t affect us much,” Montufar said, “other than it’s an eyesore.”

Spokane Valley’s abandoned cart problem isn’t new — Councilman Arne Woodard said carts have been bothering him for at least six years. But the city is evaluating options to fix the problem.

“They’re full of garbage, so it’s a health concern,” Woodard said. “It’s not a good aesthetic.”

Spokane Valley staff members proposed the cart rules to the city council after receiving numerous complaints about the carts from some businesses.

Cities have the power to get rid of public nuisances, Spokane Valley Assistant City Attorney Erik Lamb said, adding that these shopping carts, which often contain needles, clutter parking lots and even block traffic, are clearly a nuisance.

Spokane Valley officials are considering stricter rules for shopping carts. The proposal would allow the city to impose fines on retailers whose carts are stolen and abandoned in the city.

It may seem odd to punish a business for being robbed, rather than the thief, but many cities across the country have done just that to combat abandoned carts.

For example, Yakima ($115 fine) and Federal Way ($25 fine) already penalize retailers for abandoned carts. Cities often give stores 14 days to collect their carts before throwing them away – disposal often comes with an additional fine. A new shopping cart can cost between $150 and $600 for a store.

Lamb said the city would ideally punish shopping cart thieves, not stores. But, he said, it is not possible to prosecute the people who steal the carts.

“If you don’t sue the retailers, all the citizens end up paying,” Lamb said.

On a trip to find abandoned carts in the Spokane Valley earlier this week, a reporter located about 20 carts, almost all from Walmart.

Woodard added, however, that wherever there is a store with carts, it’s not uncommon to find that store’s carts nearby.

Walmart’s director of corporate communications, Beth Bruce, said in an email that the store would abide by an abandoned cart law if the city passed one.

“We do our best to ensure that carts are collected quickly from our parking lots, and in some cases we will try to retrieve carts if they are near the property,” Bruce said.

Council members Pam Haley and Tim Hattenburg said at a meeting earlier this month that they would prefer the rules to include incentives to reduce fines for stores that have tightened shopping cart security.

For example, some stores across the country are attaching locking wheels to their carts. If someone tries to take the trolley, the lock activates and prevents the wheel from turning. Lamb told Spokane Valley that only Rosauers use the lockable wheels.

“If someone is stealing in this case, they’re really trying to steal,” he said, adding that if a store takes meaningful action to stop the theft “we don’t want to sue you.”

Spokane Valley might not follow in the footsteps of Yakima or Federal Way, however. Councilman Rod Higgins said he would like to avoid the city becoming a shopping cart police as much as possible.

“How about a subscription service?” asked Higgins. “They pay a fee, we pick up the carts?”

Whichever model the city chooses, city staff will not be handling the carts. Lamb said the city doesn’t have the manpower to do the job, nor the space to hold the carts. If the city coordinates the response, it would find contractors to do the job.

Woodard said he would like to resolve the issue with as little government involvement as possible.

“I would always prefer to induce and obtain voluntary cooperation,” he said. “I’m not really big on penalty kicks.”