Recycling Cans: A Vital Source of Income for the Poor

Despite the unique flavor of every American city, you’re sure to spot the same thing in each of them — marginalized members of society, who call themselves “canners,” hunting for bottles and cans to recycle.

In fact, for those living near or below the poverty line, collecting and redeeming cans has long been a financial lifeline.

Gentrification threatens to change all of that. In cities like New York and San Francisco, recycling centers are having trouble paying their ever-rising rent, forcing some to shutter their doors and leaving others on the brink of doing so.

But advocates around the nation are working to preserve the income canners have come to depend on.

How People Earn Money Redeeming Cans

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, as society grew to understand the devastating environmental impact of throwing bottles and cans into landfills, 10 states across the nation began offering small financial rewards for every bottle or can brought to a recycling center or participating grocer to encourage recycling.

Today, canners earn between 5 and 10 cents per redeemed can — an infinitely recyclable product — or bottle, depending on the size. They can earn up to 25% more per item if they separate the cans from the bottles, and the glass by color.

A study found that redemption rates in most states were roughly $1.50 to $2 per pound for cans; $1.21 per pound for plastic; and 10 cents per pound for glass.

In San Francisco, full-time canners earn $30 to $50 per day. This may not seem like a lot of money to most, but for some, it can help them obtain food, clothing and shelter.

“Canning provides people with a minimal amount of money to live on,” says Yunging Zhu, a Columbia University graduate student who made a short documentary about canners in New York. “It’s important for people in temporary housing or people without housing.”

Canning is far from an easy gig. Most canners work at night and in early mornings, when garbage and recycling are placed outside for pickup. Redemption centers are usually located on the outskirts of cities, meaning it takes time and money to reach them.

“A canner I met in Brooklyn wakes up at 4 a.m. and walks around for hours. Then he spends hours getting to the recycling center and sorting,” Zhu says. “He does it all again a few hours later.”

How Gentrification Is Changing the Game

Most state laws dictate that any store that sells a can or bottle with a redemption value must accept their return and provide the refund.

But many stores argue that policy drains their resources. Some grocers have installed “reverse vending machines” that accept recyclables and issue refunds. Others limit the number of cans and bottles they’ll accept each day. Some stores simply won’t accept cans or bottles.

So while canners shouldn’t theoretically have to lug their recyclables all the way to a redemption center, they often do. And these redemption centers are getting harder to find, and harder to reach.

For example, over 450 recycling centers in California have closed over the last few years. Reasons for these closures are varied and include rising rents, complaints from neighbors and razor-thin profit margins.

 Advocates Find Inventive Ways to Continue Helping the Poor

Despite the troubles facing recycling centers, many are determined to remain open and continue providing income and other support to canners. Sure We Can, a nonprofit recycling center in Brooklyn, distributed more than $500,000 to canners in 2015.

The center also offers English and computer classes and operates a garden to provide canners with fresh vegetables. In 2016, the center enlisted local artists to help paint the canners’ shopping carts so that they’re easier for oncoming cars to see.

Last year, Sure We Can’s landlord offered the center $50,000 to end its lease early because a buyer had offered him $3.8 million for the property.

Rather than move to a smaller place and disrupt the lives of canners, the group is raising funds through its #60MillionCans social media campaign to match the landlord’s offer and buy the property itself.

Meanwhile, across the country in San Francisco, the owner of the Our Planet redemption site is helping those who rely on recycling by driving a converted school bus through the city, picking up canners who couldn’t otherwise reach his facility.

And in Denmark, the city of Copenhagen has installed new public garbage cans with shelves that people can place their cans and bottles on. This way, canners don’t need to dig through the garbage to find cans.

To learn more about how recycling cans benefits society, watch “Survive on Trash: Canners in New York City.”

To help Sure We Can, visit its website.