Bring them back: the Thornton Heath trolley dilemma

By - Thursday 17th August, 2017

How to solve the problem of trolleys being constantly taken…

Photo public domain.

Agatha Christie’s fictional character Miss Marple solved crimes using her experience in the small village of St Mary Mead. She used careful thinking on small issues as an analogy to inform herself on more serious problems. She understood a larger stage through the prism of local experience.

Had Miss Marple lived in Thornton Heath, she would have also seen some interesting experiences with which to interpret life. Some might have made her hair stand on end – but a more prosaic example struck me recently with the Tesco trolley dilemma.

Tesco owns trolleys for the convenience of its customers. They are intended to help shoppers collect their purchases around the store and, once purchased, take these goods onward to their car. Simple enough; but the problem starts when some people remove the trolleys from the bounds of the store.

There the trolleys sit, a symbol of the fact that someone just doesn’t care about their community

Be it the old lady who has bought more shopping than she can carry, the youth who wants to show off to his mates, or someone who plain doesn’t care, some trolleys end up dumped on the streets of Thornton Heath. There they sit, a symbol of someone’s lack of care about their community.

We can wring our hands and moan about society’s ills and the misdeeds of a few affecting the many, but we now face the problem of what to do about it. Let’s explore the options.

We can remove the problem by banning trolleys; a price to pay for shoppers, but if there are no trolleys, they can’t be left on the street. We can impede the miscreants with technology, for example, by locking the wheels if the trolley is taken outside the designated area; expensive, prone to failure and a determined individual will get around it.

Cue moaning from people who don’t have a coin in their pocket all the time

Perhaps a hearts-and-minds campaign to change behaviour; slow, and the trolley dumpers may be the sort of people who don’t respond to gentle persuasion. We can incentivise by requiring a pound coin to release the trolley for use; costly, and cue moaning from people who don’t have a coin in their pockets all the time.

If we accept that trolleys will be convenient to use, and consequently easy to remove from the premises, we have other options. Catch and punish the perpetrators who remove the trolleys and don’t return them may be attractive, since I suspect we have a small number of repeat offenders. This is again expensive and you can bet that perpetrators will have a legion of sob stories about how they were ‘forced’ to do what they did.

We are left with the final option: someone must return them to the supermarket. But who? Perhaps the council should return them? Isn’t keeping the streets clean its job? Perhaps public-spirited Thornton Heath residents might return them? That doesn’t seem to be happening.

“Tesco has plenty of money – it should sort the trolley problem out”

Tesco is a large company and an easy target: “It’s got plenty of money so it should sort it out”. That, unsurprisingly, is what the council seems to think. To try to put pressure on Tesco, it went for a survey, asking “Do you think supermarkets should be fined for each abandoned trolley that’s found?”. That’s a great example of a leading question designed to get an answer. Even then, ‘yes’ only won by a tiny margin. Can we perhaps incentivise someone else? Paying a bounty for their return might seem attractive – but that risks incentivising dumping them in the first place to get rewarded for then bringing them back.

So there we are, every potential cure carries with it side effects. Dependent on your mindset, you can pick a villain (Tesco or the miscreant trolley dumpers), and somehow seek to come down hard on them. You might blame the council or moan about the decline of pride in public places. Sadly, none of these is free of a downside; that’s life in a nutshell.

That doesn’t mean something shouldn’t be done – but it is a question of what and who should take the lead. Understanding the local community, the organisations within it, the size of the problem, who is most affected and even who the perpetrators might be, then building a consensus about what to do and bringing the right people together to make it happen. That, in a nutshell, is what your local councillor is for – be it in Thornton Heath or St Mary Mead.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Dawn M

    Definitely charge for the use of a trolley with a redeemable £1 coin. For those who don’t have a coin in their pocket all the time the answer is simple, get a trolley token which you can easily attach to a key ring. They’re available from Sainsbury’s for £1.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Dawn. What I was trying to bring out here are that there are many possible solutions but none is without its weaknesses. The question is who should take responsibility for coming up with a solution. My answer is that your local Councillor is that key person.

      In this particular case I understand that Tesco has now undertaken to retrieve abandoned trolleys once they have been notified. Well done them. This seems a good solution. I hope it works. No doubt local residents will keep an eye on that.

  • David White

    Isn’t this part of a broader problem of anti-social behaviour and lack of respect for the environment? Abandoning supermarket trolleys is part of the same mindset as littering, graffiti or flytipping.

    I agree that councillors can play a major role in encouraging community involvement to improve things. Many already do – an outstanding example is Coun Jamie Audsley who represents the Bensham Manor ward in Thornton Heath.

    Residents groups can be encouraged, litter-picks organised, community groups set up to look after the interests of particular areas such as parks, and street planting done. These are examples of what can be done, not by councillors acting on their own but in concert with local people.

    • Robert Ward

      David, I agree with everything you say there. This particular issue is indeed part of a broader problem but we are defined not by the problem but by what we do about it as a community and in particular through our elected representatives.

      I wrote the article a few weeks ago but since then I noticed the work that Councillor Audsley has being doing to bring the community together to address the issues around a Thornton Heath park. This is an excellent example: seeing a problem, bringing the community and resources together to work out solutions and then making them work, solutions which in my opinion only work if the community actively supports them. Rarely can the council solve problems without that active engagement.

      Examples of this type of work must exist from across the borough but I confess I know more about the pantomime of Council meetings than I do about this more worthy work. Perhaps people more aware than I might write something in the Citizen to redress the balance.

  • Allen Williams

    Abandoned trolleys are the property of the supermarket concerned. Clearly, it is their responsibility to recover them. If this is a problem for them, they should take effective measures to stop said trolleys from being removed from the premises. I cannot see what the fuss is about.

  • Danny Herzbrunn

    abandoned shopping trolley ?
    A problem that has a solution:

    I have a solution I want to share with you:Web site:
    I’ll try to explain :
    WheelGuard “Shopping carts (or shopping trolleys) monitoring and locating system”

    A startup company owned by Uri Ziv and Co .

    The company develops computer-controlled systems technologies.

    The company developed and patented a monitoring and locating system for shopping carts using digital signature.

    When a customer uses our system he rings to our system, that gives us his phone number and forces him to be identified.
    Only then he can get a shopping trolley.
    Most of the customers will return the shopping trolley , And those who do not return prefer to hide in the crowd.
    Our system will show people who do not return the shopping trolley.This exposure will cause the customer to return the shopping trolley and not to be fined by the legislators.
    Of course this goes against the shop owners who will not want to harm thir customers.
    That’s why my solution does not suit them , And it’s easy for them to leave you with the problem.
    Only the community’s pressure to take the system will solve the problem.
    I do not have the tools to press the supermarket owners.And it seems that at the moment it’s convenient for them.
    And the city stays with the problem.

    I try to interest super stores in the idea of a solution , but there is no reference to the idea.
    Perhaps you will have an idea for who to contact and how to promote the idea.
    I have a small start-up company Which can solve the problem.
    I’ll show you the letter I have sent :

    The problems:

    To the environment
    Abandoned shopping carts are becoming an increasing problem worldwide. Shopping carts are being removed from grocery store property and are taken many blocks and in some cases miles from their original location. These carts are being abandoned in ditches, bus stops, and private property, driveways, and sidewalks, middle of the road and in one case, the Foss waterway. Preventing the cities as being seen as safe, clean and attractive abandoned shopping carts ultimately present those cities as unwelcoming cities – driving away new homeowners or businesses.

    Local authorities, retailers and environmental charities spend millions of pounds each year returning trolleys to supermarket car parks.

    The proposed solution:

    Our company developed a system that monitor and locate shopping carts without any change or addition to the carts themselves.
    The system prevents the release of a cart from its storage, when only after the customer identifies himself with his cell phone number, the cart can be released.
    The system, according to the cell phone number inserted, recognizes and documents the customer’s name, address and the fact that there is a cart in his possession.
    When the customer returns the cart back the system documents this action.
    If the customer didn’t turn the cart back in a designated time, the customer’s name and address will be added to the “tracking carts” list.
    This list will allow the store’s staff to locate and return most of the shopping carts, given the assumption that the cart location is near the customer’s residency.
    System advantages:

    In order to release a cart from its storage, the customer needs only a cell phone, a device that is available to vast majority of the population, especially those who go shopping.
    There is no “harm” to the customers which are the source of income and profit to the store.
    The majority of customers will avoid not returning a cart after being noted to “own a cart”.
    Another opportunity to encourage the returning of a cart by giving incentives.
    Money saving.

    For more info

    Web site:

    Contact :


    Danny Herzbrunn