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People line up in a parking lot for a long wait to return empties or buy beer at a Beer Store in downtown Toronto on April 16, 2020.

Colin N. Perkel/The Canadian Press

A Toronto brewery is issuing a plea for consumers to bring back their empty bottles as the Beer Store says a growing number of its locations are accepting returns.

Steam Whistle says restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a decline in bottle returns, leaving it with a potential shortage just as sales are expected to ramp up for spring and summer.

Tim McLaughlin, the company’s vice-president of marketing, said this week there could be “rolling shortages” of Steam Whistle beer in the coming months unless the company is able to recover and reuse more empties.

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“This time of year is really when we start to see beer sales spike with good weather and seasonality ... so we’ve had quite a bit of an issue because we weren’t getting the return bottles that we would normally expect to fill the system,” McLaughlin said.

“They wouldn’t necessarily be completely out of stock for an extended period of time but it would mean that if we’re really tight on bottles, our yield for production might be 20 per cent of what we were actually trying to produce on any given day,” he said.

The company has used up an entire year’s worth of new bottles to make up for the lack of returns, and it’ll take months for a new order to be delivered, he said.

Bottles returned to the Beer Store or the brewery itself, he said, can be back in use within days.

The Beer Store temporarily stopped accepting empty cans and bottles mid-March to adjust to new health and safety measures imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has since allowed returns to resume at most locations.

It initially allowed returns at 71 locations, then roughly 200, with physical distancing guidelines in place and limits on how much each customer can bring in at once.

Earlier this week, the company announced that more than 300 of its 450 or so stores — or about 75 per cent — are now offering the service.

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Jeff Wilcox, director of health and safety for the Beer Store, said there was some strain on the first stores to accept empties, but that’s been alleviated as more locations opened up.

“There were some locations, early in the morning, where individuals would line up,” he said. “So we introduced a security guard, we introduced a more enhanced crowd control.”

He said the company plans to have all its stores up and running again for returns next month.

Steam Whistle’s McLaughlin said that while the returns system is operational, it hasn’t yet made up for the gap in March.

“It’s our feeling that there’s lots of people out there with a stack of cases in their garages,” he said.

“We want to let them know, number 1, that they’re needed and number 2, that we are in a position now where it is safe to return those bottles.”

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Meanwhile, the LCBO said it’s expanding its hours of operation at 360 stores starting Thursday. Some stores will now be open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, it said.

All locations will continue to close on Mondays.

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