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the life and daily struggle of a 72-year-old can collector
June 5, 2014 2:59 PM   Subscribe


 
The book Hobos, Hustlers and Backsliders is by sociologist Teresa Gowan and focuses on homeless recyclers in San Francisco, as well as other homeless people.

In California, there is a law that if stores do not redeem cans and bottles (which have a 10 cent deposit) there has to be a nearby recycling center that does so. One recycling center in the Haight was already closed; the one by the Fillmore Safeway was kicked out and another on Market Street next to the Safeway is set to close soon (there is a petition opposing closure.)

The large supermarkets can afford a $100-a-day exception to the law, but surrounding neighborhood businesses in the Convenience Zone will have to accept recycling since they can't afford the fee.
posted by larrybob at 3:19 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]


In California, there is a law that if stores do not redeem cans and bottles (which have a 10 cent deposit)

In California, it is 5 cents for cans and bottles under 24 ounces and 10 cents for cans and bottles 24 ounces and above.
posted by Michele in California at 3:21 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Noted. I haven't gone to sell cans and bottles lately. It does sometimes bug me that I'm just throwing my cans and bottles in the bin and thereby throwing away money, but when I do make the effort I get a good dose of humility along with a buck or two.
posted by larrybob at 3:24 PM on June 5


Boy, do I have it easy.
posted by harrietthespy at 3:25 PM on June 5 [6 favorites]


Most important, canners are sure they can get their full five cents for a can, while pick-up redemption trucks often cheat them to four cents.

The free market at work!

God i hate this country sometimes.
posted by emptythought at 3:53 PM on June 5 [6 favorites]


mumble mumble we're failing as a country mumble tax the rich mumble guaranteed minimum income now mumble class warfare mumble.

(yes, I admit it, this is pretty much what the inside of my head sounds like all the time.)
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:00 PM on June 5 [12 favorites]


When we put our recycling out for the week, someone always picks through it for the returnables. I do not have a problem with this. Or perhaps, I only have a problem with it because for some people it is necessary.
posted by Hactar at 4:02 PM on June 5 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure what should be done about this. It's obvious this doesn't work to get the people buying them to recycle. Most people recycle in NYC out of fear of fine, not for the cash. You put your bottles out to the curb for recycling, only to have canners come by and take them to take to a center. They are already destined for recycling.

It's cool that these people have managed to find a niche, but surely that cannot be what the law is designed for.
posted by corb at 4:03 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


This reminded me of a documentary I watched about the culture of can redemption in New York. I was sure it was Frontline, or at least on PBS, but after much searching I discovered it was on HBO. Really well done documentary.

posted by dawg-proud at 4:09 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


sorry - failed at adding a link to movie, but it's just a synopsis on HBO.
posted by dawg-proud at 4:10 PM on June 5


The article is sort of light on real data:
Neither labor professors, shadow economy experts, nor sociologists who specialize in Chinese Americans, have conducted studies on the phenomenon of canning.

According to employees at Sure We Can, a large number of canners are elderly Chinese immigrants. Half of the regular canners at Sure We Can are Chinese, the other half are mostly Hispanic. “Since more redemption centers have opened, the Chinese have dispersed. But we still have about 30 Chinese regulars now,” de Luco says.
I saw nothing that really indicated how much per day these people made or what it meant in real terms of what it buys them. It did offer this:
Ruo made $60 that day. Normally she makes $80, Ruez says. She makes the most money out of all the canners there.
Ruo has enormous pride and is refusing aid from her adult children. The article indicates she has a place to live for free ("pro bono") and refuses the Western food available for free at the center, choosing instead to cook for herself at home. She works four hours a day, seven days a week by choice and probably earns close to $29,000/year -- which is not enough to live on very well in New York but with a free apartment, she is probably fairly comfortable in some ways. She likely pays no taxes. I am unaware of any way that to wind up with a 1099 for turning in recyclables. The article indicates some canners do it "to feel useful" again because they can't work a regular job.

I was curious because I was just writing yesterday about earned income and self respect/self determination for folks on the street. I find it hard to talk about such things. I think the real solution for poor people -- for our most disenfranchised -- is things like self respect and agency and those are usually the first things that most homeless service organizations try to take away. They typically try to run your life.

I am not saying this woman has the best life ever but she has some things, like pride and quality home cooked meals, that a lot of corporate drones might envy. My life has been better on the street than it was as a corporate drone. If there is something terribly wrong with America, I think that is it, really. A lot of people feel horribly trapped, like a gerbil on a treadmill, running hard just to try to stay in place and often failing. They have a high priced car to get their job because you can't get there from here with public transit and between car, home costs and just eating etc they are just surviving, not really enjoying life or pursuing their dreams.

I would like to resolve my problems and get off the street. But I am really seriously convinced that Ben Franklin was right: Sacrificing freedom for "security" does not work. This country was founded on cottage industry. I think we need to get back more to that paradigm to reclaim our heritage and become a healthier nation on many levels.
posted by Michele in California at 4:10 PM on June 5 [18 favorites]


It's obvious this doesn't work to get the people buying them to recycle.

It doesn't help that the deposit hasn't gone up, even though inflation has. Five cents in 1983 is about 11 cents now -- not a huge amount, but that would double the incomes of the canners in the article, for example.

Something I've been seeing over the past few years is people collecting cans by the side of super rural highways, way out miles from anywhere, just trudging along with a big black bag slung over their shoulder. That's a hard way to make a living, and I'm sure that when they get hit by cars it is counted as "an accident" rather than as dangerous working conditions.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:11 PM on June 5 [7 favorites]


Michele, Teresa Gowan talks about in her book about the benefits of self-respect and a self-identity as a worker that comes with being a recycler.

It's interesting that in SF, the company that picks up the recycling is the result of a series of mergers, one of which was a company called Sunset Scavenger which started around the time of the 1906 earthquake and was called that because they were scavengers of refuse and were based in the Sunset, a neighborhood on the west side of San Francisco.
posted by larrybob at 4:22 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]


I see the can collectors passing my apartment---mostly elderly Asian women carrying several bags larger than they are. Their work ethic awes me.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:45 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]


This is a thing is Singapore too. The food court that I frequent for lunch has an elderly Chinese lady in her 70's who does her rounds picking up cans of soft drinks from diners' tables. On the side she sells packets of tissue paper.

There was recent public outcry when the National Environmental Agency (NEA) made a statement that "enforcement action" will taken against unlicensed tissue paper peddlers who don't pay a licensing fee of $120 a year.
posted by ianK at 7:47 PM on June 5


corb: Most people recycle in NYC out of fear of fine, not for the cash. You put your bottles out to the curb for recycling, only to have canners come by and take them to take to a center. They are already destined for recycling.

Yes. Enough of this government imposed, forced handout to people who having nothing more worthwhile to do than sift through our garbage and take credit for the recyclables we carried out to the curb during the rare moments when we aren't lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:54 PM on June 5 [8 favorites]


I have a special place in my heart for the people that pick up bottles and cans and sift through our garbage to make ends meet.

Perhaps it's that connection that makes it hard for me to articulate my feels about something like this but I think the takeaway I get from it is that it's just plain wrong on so many levels. We should create less waste by engineering things on the front end in an intelligent manner, we should put a higher value on recycling the things we can't engineer away, we should not make a mess and shit all over where we live and exist and play and sleep and grow....

... but most of all we should respect people that live on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, often with such a pride that they wouldn't go ask for help even if they could get it, by having a system that doesn't put them, literally, in our garbage cans just to squeak out a living.

We say we're this great country but until that happens it's a farce, plain and simple.

Some folks say that the meek shall inherit the earth and that the poor [read: humble] in spirit own heaven or something, I can only hope the latter is true because the former sure as hell seems like another farce-y witticism used to keep the masses docile and full of hope where damn little exists.

Bah, I'm in a bad mood apparently, but I'll hit submit and take a walk and think about Big Paw and this gentlelady and how I hope their life was, or in her case is, a happy one.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:05 PM on June 5 [5 favorites]


I think it's a great system in terms of the incentivizing effect it has on increasing recycling behavior. The only way we could improve it would be to make the cans and bottles worth more. Oh, and universal healthcare.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:43 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


(Sure beats mining for all that aluminum)
posted by oceanjesse at 10:57 PM on June 5


A lady (live-in grandmother?) across the street from my parents collects recyclables. She goes to the nearby park several times per day, bringing back a few trash bags full each time. But this isn't NYC, this is a wealthy suburban city, with one of the best school districts in the state and the housing prices to match. I can't say that I understand her motivations, but I am definitely impressed by her work ethic.
posted by Standard Orange at 11:46 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Mr. Roquette and I have a pile of crushed cans in the closet. The only cans T throw out are the V-8 cans. They are peculiarly hard to get really clean, and we'd like to avoid roaches. It must be 40 lbs. by now. We call those cans our savings account.

There are a lot of people here who dumpster-dive for cans.
Unfortunately, some go through the garbage for anything with personal ID info, so we shred anything which could be used that way.

I personally respect the can collectors a lot more than pan-handlers. It's a hard life.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 5:57 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


It doesn't help that the deposit hasn't gone up, even though inflation has. Five cents in 1983 is about 11 cents now -- not a huge amount, but that would double the incomes of the canners in the article, for example.

In Michigan, the deposit is 10 cents (only on carbonated beverages, though), and Michiganders are mental about recycling them. I can't remember the last time I saw a soda can in the trash or discarded along a road.
posted by Etrigan at 6:00 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid, I used to sometimes take the neighbors bottles and cans to the supermarket for pocket money. These folks are all around in my neighborhood, sometimes if I encounter them while taking out my recycling, I just give them the whole bag if they want it.
posted by jonmc at 6:14 AM on June 6


It doesn't help that the deposit hasn't gone up, even though inflation has. Five cents in 1983 is about 11 cents now -- not a huge amount, but that would double the incomes of the canners in the article, for example.


Interesting, since the law was put in place to encourage recycling, end litter etc. So what you are saying is that doubling the deposit will have zero effect on the gross number of bottles and cans recycled. In fact you clearly state the only thing that doubling or expanding the law would do is provide greater income to the "canners". I mention this only because in Massachusetts they are currently thinking of expanding the law to include water and juice bottles. I swear it is like driving a Prius. It makes no economic sense but makes you feel good.
posted by Gungho at 6:21 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


So what you are saying is that doubling the deposit will have zero effect on the gross number of bottles and cans recycled. In fact you clearly state the only thing that doubling or expanding the law would do is provide greater income to the "canners".

That's not what I said at all. Doubling the deposit from 5c to 10c would make very little economic impact on me when I bought a soda, but would double the income of a person who survives on returning cans, which seems like a good outcome.

But of course as you bring up it would also incentivize some people who now throw away cans and bottles to instead return them, which is also a good outcome, but not what this FPP is centered on.

If I was in charge I'd set the deposit really high and get rid of all the weird exemptions that make no sense, but obviously I'm not in charge and I was just thinking about the economic impact of having kept the deposit the same for forty years.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:31 AM on June 6


Yes. Enough of this government imposed, forced handout to people who having nothing more worthwhile to do than sift through our garbage and take credit for the recyclables we carried out to the curb during the rare moments when we aren't lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Except that, unless I'm reading this entirely wrong, the state is not doing this with the intention of providing a new, valuable, canning industry. They're doing it to get people to recycle. Thus it is wasted money if it is for the aim of getting people to recycle. Even if you wanted to create jobs with that same state money, I'm sure they could be something better than canning, which looks like pretty miserable work.
posted by corb at 7:15 AM on June 6


At least in the places I lived, there was no household pickup of recycling during and after deposit laws were enacted. Many places still have limited recycling options, and those dong do anything about roadside litter which was a big part of the discussion about deposit laws (at least from what I can recall; I was a very small child then).
posted by Dip Flash at 7:49 AM on June 6


Dip Flash: "It doesn't help that the deposit hasn't gone up, even though inflation has. "

That's the thing that kills me about most government programs. You could solve so many problems, or at least lessen their severity, if you indexed things like the container deposit, minimum wage, etc. to inflation.

Sure, partisan economists and others would just manipulate the inflation numbers even more than they do now, but it would still be better than what we have now.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 4:09 PM on June 6


we're failing as a country ... tax the rich

"Many Americans may find this hard to believe, but the United States already has one of the most progressive tax systems in the developed world, according to several studies, raising proportionately more revenue from the wealthy than other advanced countries do. Taxes on American households do more to redistribute resources and reduce inequality than the tax codes of most other rich nations." — NYT article from 2012
posted by John Cohen at 8:44 PM on June 7


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