Yolette Francois slowly exits the elevator on the fourth floor, careful not to bump her shopping cart into the walls. She opens her apartment door, adorned with a small image of Jesus and a sign that reads “God is Good,” and steps inside to grab a pair of gloves from a cluttered coffee table.
At 11am on a bitter Saturday, Francois leaves her building in Bushwick. Bundled up wearing two sweatshirts underneath her black winter jacket, a black and white plaid flannel hat and her gloves, she begins searching for empty cans and bottles to fill her rusty cart. “Somebody sell it to me. Twenty dollars,” she says, smiling wide to reveal a set of gold-tipped dentures.
After a fruitless half-hour search, Francois spots a Heineken bottle on the front porch of a Montrose Avenue townhouse. “That’s the first one,” she says, pouring the remainder of the beer onto the sidewalk. She delicately places the bottle into her cart.
Francois is part of New York’s growing group of canners–people who collect bottles and cans and redeem them for a nickel apiece at redemption centers or supermarkets. Many rely on canning as their primary source of income, but for others—like Francois, 52, currently on disability—it’s a way to make extra money and stay busy until returning to work. Although the concept seems like an eco-friendly option for the unemployed, it’s not without controversy.
Robert Lange, director of the city sanitation department’s recycling operations, refers to canning as “scavenging,” and wants to see it end. Over email he explained the economic tension between the sanitation department and canners, who can legally redeem bottles and cans because of the 1982 New York State Returnable Container Law, commonly referred to as the Bottle Bill.
In the February 2012 issue of the trade journal Resource Recycling, Lange argued that scavenging wastes taxpayer money earmarked for curbside recycling and jeopardizes the jobs of the city’s unionized sanitation workers. Though he declined to give specific figures, Lange said that the loss of curbside redeemables to canners forces the sanitation department to take money out of other budgets to make up for what is not collected.
“A statewide bottle bill and universal curbside collection of recyclables are by design in competition for some of the same materials,” Lange wrote in an email. “Add to that basic conflict…the current state of America’s capitalist economy, which produces periodic high unemployment and a diminishing social safety net, with people’s innate entrepreneurial spirit to survive, and you have widescale scavenging.”
While no one collects data on the current number of canners in New York, there appear to be more on the streets than ever, and the sanitation department reports a steady decrease in their collection of curbside recyclables since 2008. That has had a financial impact on the city, Lange says.
Sister Ana Martinez De Luco, the founder of Sure We Can, a non-profit bottle and can redemption center in Bushwick, says she’s witnessed the growth first-hand, especially since the economic crisis of 2008.
“There are new faces on street corners,” she says. Before, canners were mainly veterans or the homeless. Now she sees families, couples and immigrants, especially speakers of Spanish and Chinese. De Luco says this change came after the economic crisis of 2008. Vincent Cristallo, the manager of Thrifty, a redemption center in Borough Park, says that he saw an increase in people collecting containers beginning about 15 years ago and that their numbers continue to rise each year.
Although New York City has had greater job growth than other cities during the recession, its economy is still weak. David Kallick, senior fellow and director of the Immigration Research Initiative at the Fiscal Policy Institute, points out that while an additional 175,000 low-wage jobs have been added since 2008, the official unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, a figure that does not include those who have given up looking for jobs. The unofficial number is about 13 to 14 percent, which is quite high. Because the majority of canners, like Francois, are poor immigrants, they are at an even greater disadvantage when faced with finding a job.
“Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are excluded from a lot of programs that might help people so when you’re really pushed to the edge, collecting cans might be all that you can do,” says Kallick.
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Francois emigrated from Haiti in 1993 with her husband and six children. She worked for 14 years as a personal care assistant in Bushwick and now shares a cluttered apartment with her two sons, ages 17 and 30. She began canning in November of 2013 to subsidize her disability checks; the $70 or so she makes each week canning helps pay the $900 a month rent she splits with her older son.
In August of 2013, Francois underwent throat surgery to treat a condition that caused excessive calcium in her bloodstream and three months later felt well enough to leave her apartment and become more active. After meeting De Luco in October of 2013, she started canning three to four times a week. Francois rents a shed at the redemption center for $25 a month so she can store the bottles and cans until the space is full, then trades them in for cash, usually every two to three days.
In addition to redemption centers, canners can bring their wares to supermarkets and use reverse vending machines (RVMs). Chuck Riegle of TOMRA, the company that makes the machines, says there are roughly 3,000 in New York City and that they serve canners well.
“We think that the RVM make for a convenient redemption process for the canners,” says Riegle, adding, “They prefer not to have to deal with people sometimes, they just want to feed the machines, and move on.”
In theory, the concept seems efficient, but supermarkets can legally limit the number of containers accepted to 240 cans (worth $12) per visit or per day. Redemption centers place no cap on amounts and also provide an additional one-and-a-half cents per container. Matthew O’Neill, director of the 2013 Oscar-nominated documentary, Redemption, followed New York canners for three years and interviewed more than 100. He noticed that supermarkets often don’t abide by the $12 law, limiting redemption to even fewer containers, and that the staffs tend to treat canners with disrespect. “They’re a big pain. They’re mean to the canners in general,” O’Neill said.
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At 1:30 p.m., as Francois pushes her cart past bustling McCarren Park, her pink Blackberry rings. She puts it on speakerphone and chats in Creole, simultaneously scouring the ground and garbage bins for empties. Fifteen minutes later, having picked up Evian, Becks and Corona Light bottles, Francois is still on the phone, sifting one-handed through a set of curbside recyclables outside an apartment. A hand-written sign on the window above the recycling bins reads, “Please be considerate. Baby sleeping.”
This morning, before picking up gloves at her apartment, Francois arrived at Sure We Can with a cart full of Polish beer cans—Zywiec, Lech, Tiskie—collected the day before in Greenpoint. As she unloaded the haul into her shed, a rooster who’d escaped from the redemption center’s chicken coop wobbled in circles nearby, occasionally crowing. The stench of stale beer lingered in the cold air. Francois keeps her shopping cart in her apartment overnight after each day’s canning, then comes here the next day to fill her shed. “If you have no job, you do this one until you find another one,” she said.
For Oscar, a fixture at Sure We Can, canning has become an identity. Two days earlier, on a Thursday afternoon, Oscar shouted, “Sister Ana, you know I got 76!” referring to the $76 he redeemed that day. De Luco laughed and said that Oscar, who declined to provide his last name, is the self-proclaimed “best canner in New York City,” averaging $50 to $70 per day. Often, he refuses to take a break from sorting even to eat the soup that a local shelter donates and De Luco heats up on an outside stove.
Canners like Oscar, who work day and night collecting and sorting, contribute to this growing underground business. In the fall of 2010, a New York City sanitation worker approached De Luco and explained that the department was conducting a study to discover why the volume of recyclables was decreasing. He took one look at the center on McKibben Avenue with its mounds of sorted bottles and cans and said, “I guess it’s because of places like this.” About 35 redemption centers now operate in the city, according to Phoenix, the distributor of beers like Corona, Coors and Dos Equis, as well as local brands like Brooklyn Brewery.
At 2:30 p.m. Francois crosses onto Lorimer Street between Norman and Nassau Avenues and looks disappointed. “Last week a lot of bottles here! Somebody took them already,” she says, pointing to a full shopping cart ahead. Moments later, a smiling middle-aged woman walks down her front porch steps and hands Francois a six-pack of empty beer bottles. Francois places the bottles into her cart.
After a few successful curbside stops the cart is half full and Francois pulls out two large plastic bags, tying one on each side of the handlebar. Cans go into the right bag, plastic bottles in the left, leaving the glass bottles to roll and clink together at the bottom of the cart.
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In 2007, the sanitation department tried to curb “scavenging” with the passage of Local Law 50, making it illegal for anyone but Department of Sanitation employees to remove or transport recyclable materials collected from the stoop area by car. Thus, the shopping cart became the permissible coin of the realm for canners. As canning continues to grow in New York City, the department is looking for new ways to decrease the practice, possibly through further legislation, though Lange is not optimistic about that tactic. “Keep in mind any legislation will only put a small dent in the activities of scavengers,” he wrote.
If Francois worries about the future of canning, she doesn’t show it. At 4pm, after five hours of canning in Bushwick and Greenpoint, her cart is full, her feet hurt, and she’s had enough. She will go home to her apartment on the fourth floor, taking her shopping cart with her.
“Tomorrow I’m going nowhere,” Francois says with a sigh of relief. “I’m going to rest.”