Yes We Can

On the streets and digging through trash with New Yorkers who make their living half-a-penny at a time.

Yes We Can

Paula, a 72-year-old Dominican woman pushing a blue collapsible shopping cart, turns the corner onto Moore Street in Bushwick. She takes in Roberta’s, the popular pizzeria and restaurant where Brooklynites are known to wait upward of two hours for pine-nut-and-Brussels-sprout-topped pies. It’s the Saturday before Halloween, and just outside two young women are selling pumpkins; in Roberta’s garden, two guys are carving them. Paula turns to the restaurant’s trash bins. She sifts through the garbage bags inside, but finds nothing.

She zigzags across the street to a dumpster outside a residential building in a former warehouse. The dumpster is largely empty except for a promising-looking white plastic bag tantalizingly out of reach. Paula, a retired home attendant who is five-foot-nine and solidly built, can’t reach it, even on her tiptoes. She scans the sidewalk, and finds a seven- or eight-foot-long wooden stick across the street. As she heads back to the dumpster, stick in hand, a resident emerges from the building and tosses another garbage bag in.

With her newfound tool, Paula fishes both bags out and opens one. Corona, Yuengling, Corona, Yuengling, Corona, Beck’s, Corona, Brooklyn lager. Into her cart they go. A water bottle with water still in it. She opens it to briefly rinse off the black grease that was smeared all over the inside of the bag and now covers her hands. One crushed can. She rubs the inside of the plastic bag against the remaining bottles to try to remove the grease. A Lagunitas Pilsner, two Blue Point ales. A tall guy in jeans and a black hoodie and a girl wearing cat-eye glasses exit the building. “You’re going to look retarded,” the woman says to her companion as they walk away—perhaps to brunch; it’s about that time.

Paula searches through a dumpster in Bushwick (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Paula searches through a dumpster in Bushwick (Photo by Jessica Bal)

Paula rips a small hole in the second bag and retrieves a seltzer bottle, which she crushes, an aluminum lager can, another Poland Spring water bottle and a Seagram’s ginger ale. She uses the remaining water to again try to wash the grease off her hands. It’s futile.

The young man and woman have turned back, apparently having left something behind. Just before they enter the building, the woman, in the middle of a train of thought, says, “Which is also ridiculous because his skin is so perfect for color tattoos.”

Paula returns the stick to the other side of the street and spies a Budweiser can on the ground. In her cart it goes. Total earned: ninety cents. If she manages to sort them all by distributor, she’ll earn a dollar and two-and-a-half cents.

New Yorkers are uncomfortable with the city’s waste. Hence the NIMBY attitude toward a riverside recycling plant planned for Gansevoort Street at Pier 52 in Manhattan, and a waste transfer station green-lit for the Upper East Side. Hence the official, practically sterilized title for garbage collectors: Sanitation Worker. And hence the anonymity of the city’s humblest of waste workers—those who collect our discarded cans and bottles to make their living one nickel at a time.

So-called “canners” are a crucial link in a process in which most of us play an unconscious part. When you buy a beverage, you pay a five-cent deposit for the bottle—the same amount that the store paid to the distributor. After you finish your drink, whoever returns the bottle or can to the distributor gets the nickel deposit refunded. Groups that organize bulk quantities to return to the distributors can earn an extra three-and-a-half-cent handling fee per container.

Paula scavenges for bottles and cans (Photos by Jessica Bal)
Paula scavenges for bottles and cans (Photos by Jessica Bal)

Canners trudge through the city collecting shopping carts brimming with bottles. The ambitious ones outfit their carts with six broomsticks sticking up along the perimeter to hold garbage bags that can carry even more freight. Certain canners, especially the Chinese, may plod along with a stick across their shoulder and garbage bags dangling from the front and the back. Others collect their goods in folding grocery carts as if on a shopping excursion or a routine trip to the laundry.

Largely seen as benign scavengers or, by some, as environmental foot soldiers who boost the recycling rate and pick up litter, New York’s canners are mostly non-English-speaking elderly immigrants, according to Sure We Can, a non-profit bottle redemption center in Bushwick. Many canners are Chinese. Others are Spanish-speaking, from the Caribbean, Mexico or Central or South America. Among the English speakers, almost all are black; virtually none are white. And contrary to what many assume, most canners are not homeless. While a majority collect cans because they need the money, others do it simply out of boredom, as an excuse to get out of the house.

But despite their diverse backgrounds, one thing ties them together: the precariousness of their livelihood. Their “work,” although not expressly illegal, is not really a job either, and police sometimes harass canners for sifting through trash. Most are hesitant to talk about what they do. Some, who receive Social Security payments, fear their extra income could imperil their government checks. Others don’t speak English, or simply don’t want to talk about their situations. Almost all of them prefer to remain anonymous.

Walking along the median of Pike Street in Chinatown on a Saturday morning in September, a Chinese man and woman who appear to be in their 70s charge by, pushing two large grocery carts. The man’s is about a third full of flattened cardboard boxes and half-a-dozen satiny paper shopping bags with handles; the woman’s cart sports six upright broomstick poles. Though they have no cans or bottles yet, their carts are a dead giveaway. The woman leads the way, alternately ignoring or barking at me as I try to speak with her through an interpreter.

The man, trailing behind, speaks for his hostile partner: “Don’t follow me! Don’t follow me!” he shouts in Cantonese. Before running off to keep up with her, he gives us one tidbit: He and his canner partner drop their recyclables under the Manhattan Bridge, at Monroe Street and Pike. At the next intersection the woman turns and glares at me.

The sidewalk at Monroe and Pike is wide—six big, smooth concrete squares across. Nine canners—all Chinese—are spread out on each side of the sidewalk, one group next to the bridge anchorage and the other near the curb. It’s so roomy that passersby (mostly white) can still walk through, but they hurry as though not wanting to disturb the work. In the adjacent Coleman Playground, a group of multiethnic, twenty-something guys wearing baseball caps with wide, flat brims zoom one way, then the other, on skateboards.

A fifty-ish Chinese woman with a bowl cut who appears to be in charge—notebook, pen, suspicious attitude—immediately shoos us away and hides her notebook as I ask questions through the interpreter. “So many reporters come and ask me the same questions you just did. And when I tell them to go away, they leave immediately, not like you! You need to cooperate better!” she says, adding, “And don’t take my picture.” Behind her, a woman shakes out the contents of a white plastic garbage bag with red drawstrings. She squats and immediately begins putting the bottles and cans back into the garbage bag one by one, apparently counting.

Some Chinese canners I meet later at a grocery store tell me that in order to drop your containers at Monroe and Pike, you have to bring a large number of cans or bottles, though they’re not sure of the minimum. As far as I can tell, this makeshift operation returns large quantities of cans to distributors, netting the extra handling fee on top of the nickel deposit.

Across the East River, Sure We Can, which was founded by homeless canners in 2007, also organizes discarded bottles and cans in bulk to send back to distributors. The non-profit center pays individual canners for their wares—in good weather, as many as sixty come each day. On a sunny, blue-sky October morning, founder Sister Ana Martinez de Luco, a 57-year-old Spanish nun with short salt-and-pepper hair and warm eyes, gives a quick greeting and then runs off. When she returns, she explains, “I paid two dollars less to a man so I ran after him, but he’s gone. Oh well, he will come back.” She proceeds to give a tour of the center.

Sister Ana Martinez de Luco of Sure We Can (Photo by Jessical Bal)
Sister Ana Martinez de Luco of Sure We Can (Photo by Jessical Bal)

The mostly outdoor space, on a quiet block in a hipster-filled section of Bushwick, is surrounded by brick warehouses covered in graffiti. The facility is separated into discrete areas, each with its own purpose. The front, which features three trailers and a large open, outdoor space, is pretty and cheerful, with colorful murals and a light breeze rustling the trees. Flowers are planted in stacks of brightly painted rubber tires. Here, older women (two Chinese, one Hispanic) organize the bottles and cans that they have collected themselves. Nearby, in an L-shaped section marked off by a tin roof, half a dozen canners, most of them elderly Hispanic, Chinese or black, sort their “empties” by distributor, occasionally bantering and asking each other which containers go to which company.

A “sorted” bag holds the exact number of containers required by the various distributors, which minimizes counting on their end. (Each distributor has a different per-bag requirement.) In an aluminum-sided barn-like structure in the back, workers “receive” unsorted plastic bottles and cans, turning the stray ones into, say, a two-hundred-and-forty-bottle bag to send back to a distributor; here, where there’s a separate station for glass, plastic bottles and aluminum cans, workers also organize glass bottles into pallets.

The clattering of glass is heard throughout the facility, when bottles slump together as they are hoisted onto a dolly or when a stuffed shopping cart shudders along the floor. In the front, there is also a small, homemade chicken coop (home to two chickens kept for eggs), which Martinez de Luco made from a box she found in the trash. “We find a lot of things in the garbage,” she says without a hint of irony.

The scene at Sure We Can in Bushwick (Photos by Michael Premo)
The scene at Sure We Can in Bushwick (Photos by Michael Premo)

Aside from a community garden in the back, the rest of the facility is devoted to storing the goods before distributors pick them up. A tarp-covered area holds the glass-bottle pallets, each one stacked seven cardboard boxes high and three wide, and then wound tightly with clear plastic. Next to that, a large uncovered area is piled high with clear plastic bags of sorted plastic bottles—Coco Rico, Canada Dry Seltzer, Sunkist, Pepsi, Schweppes, plus several bags of Poland Spring.

Everywhere, there are bottles, boxes, pallets, plastic bags, milk crates, shopping carts, shallow plastic crates and even laundry baskets. It’s like a poor man’s version of The Container Store—with lots of flies and a sour stale beer stench that occasionally wafts through the air.

Bottle deposits are a relatively new invention, and an answer to the disposable economy that developed in the 1960s and ’70s . For decades, Americans drank beverages from refillable glass bottles that were used dozens of times before being discarded. In the ’30s, a disposable steel beverage can had been introduced, and by 1970, sixty percent of all beer and nearly half of all soft drinks were packaged in no-return cans and bottles, causing a proliferation of litter and waste. In 1971, Oregon passed a “bottle bill” mandating that consumers pay a deposit on beverage bottles and cans that could be redeemed if the bottle was returned. New York’s law took effect in 1983, and today, ten states have such bills. (Businesses like container manufacturers, soft drink bottlers, grocers, and beer, wine and liquor distributors oppose such laws, which helps explain why four out of five states still have no bottle bills; the Coca-Cola Company, for instance, says bottle bills are “expensive and inefficient ways to increase recycling rates and handle recyclables.”)

The bills focus on beverage containers because they comprise about half of all litter and are usually consumed on-the-go, not at home, making them less likely to be recycled curbside. Also, their brief use makes their disposal especially egregious compared to items like shampoo bottles that are used over the course of several weeks or months. The bills do create a positive environmental effect, boosting recycling rates and lowering recycling costs. A 2002 study by the Container Recycling Institute showed that the ten bottle-deposit states recycle four hundred and ninety containers per capita annually at a cost of 0.53 cents per recyclable. The non-deposit states, meanwhile, recycle 191 containers a year per capita, at a cost of 1.25 cents per recyclable, with consumers, beverage distributors and retailers bearing the cost.

The division of labor at Sure We Can illustrates how money is made in this business. While many canners who operate independently just make the nickel per collected piece, Sure We Can offers canners the chance to take home a share of the three-and-a-half-cent handling fee. Those who sort their own cans and create a full bag that can go straight to the distributor can earn an extra 1.25 cents per can, and other canners who receive unsorted cans to package earn a penny and a half per empty, which comes out to eight or nine dollars per hour, on average. The two leftover cents per can or bottle cover Sure We Can’s rent, utilities and other operating costs.

Maria Angelica sorts bottles at the Sure We Can facility (Photo by Michael Premo)
Maria Angelica sorts bottles at the Sure We Can facility (Photo by Michael Premo)

On this particular morning, one of the regulars, a Chinese woman named Won, has two grocery carts’ worth of cans—seven hundred of them sorted and the other 863 unsorted. She earns $86.90 for three days of collecting.

“They are so hard workers, the Chinese,” Martinez de Luco says, adding that Won “brings one or two carts a day, and she is alone.”

To many in the working world who earn their money in dollars, if not hundreds or thousands, the idea of making a living a nickel at a time seems outrageous—and doing a little extra work for quarters of a penny is downright absurd. For that reason, some states like Vermont have already increased their bottle deposits to ten cents, and, in 2010, State Senator Liz Krueger proposed the same increase in New York, along with an increased five-cent handling fee. This would just barely keep up with inflation, since a nickel in 1983 is comparable to about twelve cents today (and a nickel in 1971, the year of the first bottle bill in Oregon, is worth 28 cents). But, two years later, Krueger’s bill is still awaiting a vote.

Surprisingly, Martinez de Luco says canners are against increasing the fee to ten cents. They fear that more people will want to redeem the dimes and there will be fewer cans and bottles left out on sidewalks for them to pick up. “They said, ‘When a family sees that they can get a dollar by collecting ten ten-cent bottles, they will put out fewer bags. People, for five cents, they don’t really care, but with ten-cent deposits, canners will have less to pick up. Even restaurants will start to keep the cans.’”

Back in Chinatown, a 77-year-old Chinese man dressed in gray slacks and a lightweight gray jacket walks with a wooden stick resting on his right shoulder and three garbage bags full of recyclables dangling from it. He’s headed to the Fine Fare Supermarket at Grand and Clinton Streets to redeem bottles that took him two hours to collect.

Fine Fare’s fluorescent-lit bottle-recycling room reeks as though it has been soaked in warm beer. Huge flies roam around, and with each step I take, my shoe sticks to the ground and makes a noise. Nokia and Sidekick ads share a wall with an old, long fly strip that has at least thirty bugs stuck to it. Trash and bottle caps litter the floor. Three brooms, including a leopard-print one, rest against the wall.

The man, who’s from Jiangsu on the eastern coast of China, refuses to give his name as he feeds the cans one by one into the machine. (The plastic and glass machines are broken, so he’ll have to redeem those bottles elsewhere.) He answers all our questions in Mandarin, but volunteers nothing of his own; he protests that there is nothing to tell: He’s retired. He collects cans to relieve his boredom. His wife moved back to China. No, he does not feel that he is helping to make the city cleaner. Eventually, he tells us that he rents a studio in a public housing complex for two hundred and twenty dollars a month and that his Social Security income is eight hundred dollars. Every other month or so, he sends his wife between three hundred and five hundred dollars.

Another Chinese guy—68, about five-foot-four, and potbellied but baby-faced—overhears our conversation and opens up. In China he was a freelance businessman, he tells us. After coming to the U.S. from Fujian, a province in the country’s southeast, about eight years ago, he worked for a restaurant, and a month ago he started collecting cans and bottles. “It’s very hard work,” he says. “If I can only pick around one hundred bottles in a day, I make around five dollars.”

The money he makes canning helps support his household of seven people including his son, who works in a restaurant, and three grandchildren, who all squeeze into a two-bedroom apartment. Rent is a thousand dollars a month. “That’s why I do this,” he says. “I can’t feed the family.”

The man has occasionally bumped into relatives and friends while canning, and he feels ashamed to be picking through garbage. So now, he mostly goes out late at night or very early in the morning to avoid people he knows. Later on, I notice he walks with a limp.

When he and the man in the gray are finished loading in all the cans, the machine produces slips of paper stating how much they are owed, and they walk into the grocery to get their money. For two hours of work and 45 cans redeemed, the man in the gray outfit earns a total of $2.25.

When asked if he thinks the bottle deposit should be increased to a dime, he says, “It’s impossible to raise. Everywhere it’s five cents. There’s no way because the machines are five cents too.”

Martinez de Luco estimates that there are about five thousand canners in New York City, but she says the demographics have largely changed since she founded Sure We Can five years ago.  Back then, the vast majority of canners were homeless. But now, with more and more people in need of money, she estimates that only fifteen percent of the city’s canners are on the streets or in shelters. For such reasons, Martinez de Luco sees her job not only as managing a recycling operation but as tending to a struggling population dealing with the difficulty of making ends meet—not to mention issues ranging from alcoholism to illness and loneliness. “It’s not about five cents or six cents or seven cents, but personal follow-up,” she says. “Even some people who have housing feel alone or afraid. We try to show caring or concern and say, ‘Please, give us a call.’”

Sorting bottles at Sure We Can (Photo by Michael Premo)
Sorting bottles at Sure We Can (Photo by Michael Premo)

As I interview Martinez de Luco in one of the trailers at Sure We Can, several canners come in to have her process their payments. At one point, a tall black woman missing a tooth drops a slip of paper detailing her work, and exits the trailer to wait. Martinez de Luco gets distracted and continues talking, and the woman, named Chocolate (her real name), opens the trailer door again, belting out, “Ana—just do the paper and let me go!” Martinez de Luco, clearly flustered by Chocolate’s anger, tries to deflect it with humor. Chocolate then reveals that she’s upset and launches into a long tale of how, a while back, she had worked hard to collect a hundred dollars’ worth of cans—between sixteen hundred and two thousand, depending on how many she sorted herself—and took for her payment a hundred-dollar bill in order to keep herself from being tempted to use the money right away.

The day before, Chocolate’s cell phone bill was due but she hadn’t canned for a few days because of knee and hip pain, so she had been forced to finally break out the Benjamin. The store clerk, however, insisted that the bill was counterfeit and proceeded to mark it with two X’s on both sides and a line straight across the front. “If you don’t want to take it, then why are you giving it the mark of Satan?” Chocolate recalled screaming at the clerk. In describing her feelings of powerlessness and the injustice of the situation, she explains that she’s never paid a phone bill late and never had her phone involuntarily turned off. When Chocolate thinks about how hard she worked for that hundred dollars and how difficult it would be to make that money back, the tears start flowing. At one point, as she tells her story, the ski cap that she’s wearing pops off her head and falls on the floor. Sewn on the front is the word SECURITY.

(Martinez de Luco tells me later that Chocolate took the bill to the bank, which confirmed that it was real.)

Despite the precariousness of their lives, many canners do make a living from it. Veronica, a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American girl whose parents are canners, comes to Sure We Can on the weekends to help out and make some extra cash. She demurs on shaking my hand because hers are sticky, but she takes an interest in my reporting and tells me about her high school journalism class, for which she recently wrote about Malala Yousufzai, the fifteen-year-old Pakistani girl who’d been shot by the Taliban. “You’re always supposed to ask ‘Why,’” she says, in explaining what she’s learned of journalism so far. Once, for an event at the United Nations marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Veronica told an audience of three hundred people about how her family overcame poverty by canning.

Despite the uncertain place they hold in society, Martinez de Luco says that canners tend to be “very hard workers and independent. They don’t want to be dependent on their children and are trying to work till their last breath.”

Paula, the Dominican woman who collects cans in Bushwick, has four adult children (three in New York City and one in Santo Domingo). She says she doesn’t make a lot of money from canning—“just enough for coffee and milk”—although Martinez de Luco tells me that Paula makes between a hundred and a hundred-and-fifty dollars a week on top of her Social Security checks.

Paula along her regular route in Bushwick (Photo by Jessica Bal)
Paula along her regular route in Bushwick (Photo by Jessica Bal)

On the late-October Saturday when I follow her, Paula has a pleasant walk through the neighborhood, where she seems to know the location of each dumpster. She quietly does her rummaging while young professionals emerge from their warehouses-turned-apartment-buildings, squeezing past Paula to pick up their New York Times deliveries. Her route takes her past Brooklyn’s Natural food store, where hipsters sitting on benches stare at their iPhones and a small dog sits quietly in its owner’s lap. Paula continues by several large warehouses with Chinese lettering on their signs; at one, a handful of Chinese men, in mini assembly lines, fill SUVs with Bounty and Tide cleaning detergent. Along the way, she finds Trader Joe’s paper bags holding empty wine bottles and Ben & Jerry’s pints, and plastic bags of drained Red Bull and Vitamin Water containers—the remnants of late-night parties or the result of busy lives on the go. To many, these bags are simply trash. To Paula and other canners, they’re money.

At her last stop, Carrera’s Taqueria, on Flushing Avenue, the owners apologize because they have already given away the bulk of their recyclables. One man tries to give Paula cash but she puts her hand behind her back and refuses, saying, “No cojo dinero”—“I don’t take money.” Despite routine encounters like this, Paula does not seem bothered by the awkwardness of making a living from other people’s scraps. She says she goes canning not for the cash, but because it keeps her from moping around her house, depressed.

“For me,” she says as she heads home for her lunch break, “this is a type of therapy.”

*   *   *

Michael Premo is a multimedia storyteller and theater maker.

Stacey Zhou, who worked as a translator on this story, is a Chinese-born American journalist and home fashion designer based in New York City. When not translating between the two languages and four dialects she knows, she can be found scaling rock and enjoying cocktails with her friends.