Ken Duggan’s truck idles on Vegas Verdes Drive, just off Cerrillos Road, as he pulls out his phone and takes a photo of an empty Walmart shopping cart on the sidewalk. He snaps pictures of two more nearby deserted carts before loading the three into his white truck—already laden with seven other pushcarts.
This is Duggan’s second load of the day. After securing the carts, he drives to Walmart, Smiths and the other box stores along Cerrillos to return the wheeled baskets. For each shopping cart returned, after wandering from the stores’ expansive parking lots, Duggan receives $15 from the city for his services.
Duggan’s business started in Albuquerque last year when he noticed how much of an eyesore the abandoned metal baskets on wheels were to the city. “It finally just came to head,” he says. “Why doesn’t somebody actually do something about all these carts?”
The inspiration led to the formation of Duke City Carts LLC. When Duggan’s not on duty as a Bernalillo County firefighter, he’s often out collecting carts.
When the city of Santa Fe heard about Duggan’s operation, officials came to him with a surprisingly large problem: Constituent services receives a lot of grief from Santa Feans about the abandoned carts.
“It was relayed to me at one point that when I started this program that they had more complaints about shopping carts than all the other complaints combined,” Duggan says. In a news release last week, the city reported that complaints about abandoned shopping carts were the number one grievance filed online by residents.
Duggan secured a $20,000 contract with the city and went to work in the capital last month. As of this week, he has collected almost 750 carts.
“I’m averaging between 50 and 60 carts a day,” Duggan says. “There are a lot of carts out there.”
Duggan says the program’s upsides are threefold. Shoppers, retailers and the city benefit from the returning of carts to stores, cleaning up Santa Fe in the process.
The one group that might not look on Duggan’s work so favorably are those who use the wheeled vessels to carry their belongings. These individuals rely on shopping carts to move from one location to the next, forced into a state of permanent mobility with no other means of transportation and likely without permanent housing.
Duggan has strict requirements for collecting carts; if the cart is occupied, he doesn’t touch it. An occupied cart might look like someone pushing it down the street or a cart that obviously contains someone’s belongings.
“If it’s basically an abandoned cart, there’s nobody around it, nobody can say, ‘Hey, that’s my cart, I’ve got my stuff in it,’ just some trash. I’ll pick up the trash, if it’s a little bit,” Duggan says. He adds that when he finds carts loaded with trash or someone’s belongings, he snaps a picture and passes that along to constituent services.
Duggan says his collection efforts only reach so far.
“There’s parts that I can’t even get to, I can’t find, because they’re on private property where I’m not able to go,” he tells SFR.
As a city contractor Duggan is only allowed to collect carts from public spaces: sidewalks, roads and medians, for example, but he says a significant number of the abandoned carts he sees are on private property, just out of reach.
Though Duggan has contracts with some private retailers in Albuquerque, where his business is based, his work in Santa Fe is through the city.
Funding for the cart collection comes from the city clerk’s budget.
“The whole focus of this pilot project was to gather data,” Clerk Kristine Bustos-Mihelcic writes to SFR in an email. She explains that the data on the number, location and stores where the carts originate will be used “to develop legislation to address this issue.”
By Duggan’s estimates, stores lose between $8,000 and $10,000 a year on shopping carts—money, now saved, that Santa Fe retailers could contribute to paying for the return service. Asking stores to pay for the cost of cart return is a model other cities have taken up to keep streets free of obstructions, at no cost to taxpayers.