Shopping carts turn up in the oddest of places

Story highlights

  • February is Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month
  • Rogue shopping carts have been found used as grills, chairs and shelters
  • Stores report annual losses of more than $800 million globally due to cart theft
  • Stores enlist cart security systems in order to contain the problem

The year was 1937. It was the dawn of the soft-drink machine, the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel ... and the shopping cart. Inventor Sylvan Goldman's prototype for the shopping cart was nothing more than two wire baskets attached to a folding chair, but it was the start of what would become a supermarket staple.

When it first came on the scene, customers were reluctant to use the cart. But by the 1960s, they were so ubiquitous that a new problem had arisen:

The rogue shopping cart.

Chicago supermarket owner Anthony Dinolfo was so enraged by the volume of stolen shopping carts popping up in places decidedly not supermarkets (in auto repair shops, people's basements and at the bottom of rivers) that he went on a crusade to return them to their rightful owners. In 1969, he deemed February Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month.

Dinolfo died in 2009, but his crusade reappears each February on various websites and Internet forums, and was even acknowledged by the U.S. Census Bureau. When we brought this to the attention of the CNN iReport community, our contributors mentioned that until now, they had never noticed how prevalent wayward shopping carts were.

While it may be easy to write off Dinolfo's crusade as just the hysterical rant of a disgruntled business owner, retailers report cart theft to be a costly problem. Shopping carts cost anywhere from $75 to $150 each, according to Brett Osterfeld of Gatekeeper systems.

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Retailers find customers' ambivalence toward the issue frustrating, but most people can't help but think that there are greater causes to raise awareness about.

"Am I supposed to really feel sorry for the grocers?" asked Jeremy Nix from Denver.

The great cart robbery

Ron Fong, president and CEO of the California Grocers Association, found that stores that report the greatest losses are located in neighborhoods and cities where few people own a car, but still need an efficient way to carry their groceries home.

Once the shoppers are finished, the carts rarely return to the store. Fong said that he's seen many innovative uses for shopping carts, such as portable barbecue grills, lounge chairs and even shelters. He noted that many homeless people use them to transport their belongings.

In November, Hawaii state lawmaker Tom Brower attempted to clean up the state's homeless problem by taking a sledgehammer to abandoned shopping carts. Hawaii has the country's highest rate of homeless per capita; Brewer said his solution was meant to encourage them to seek out shelters.

"I get a lot of complaints about stolen and abandoned shopping carts in Waikiki, and I was thinking as a public servant, 'What can I do that would be practical and I can literally do overnight?' " Brower told CNN affiliate KITV. "I'm not doing anything different than doing a community cleanup, or what the city's administration has tried to do with the issue of people illegally camping on the streets."

Supermarkets and community members aren't the only ones upset about the stray carts. The city of Santa Ana, California, reported an annual cost of $50,000 to retrieve abandoned shopping carts from local streams and rivers. Across the country, John Long, president of the Maryland nonprofit Clean Bread and Cheese Creek, said that volunteers have removed more than 200 shopping carts from the creek that drains into the Chesapeake Bay since 2009.

"They create an environmental hazard by trapping wildlife and causing artificial dams along the stream, which lead to flooding and erosion," Long said.

Stores are working to contain the problem through the use of cart containment systems -- the wheels lock when they reach the boundary of the store's parking lot -- and by hiring companies to locate and return the carts for a fee.

And yet, it's not hard to find plenty of shopping carts in the wild ...

Scroll through the gallery to see some of the spots where carts have turned up.

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