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THE BOTTLE REPORT - SECRETS OF THE ORIENT

March 9, 2010, 1:26am

The Key Foods bottle-machine has been stuffed to overflowing. Eventually a worker comes from inside of the store to start emptying it out, but while everyone waits Igor and I decide to head down to Ave C to the Fine Fare. When we get there, a Chinese family is filling the machines with their bottles. By now we know a few of the regulars, and we say hi to some people we've interviewed before. All four members of the Chinese family work the same machine with one of those big canvas rolling bins you only see in prison movies where the hero escapes by hiding in the giant laundry hamper. The leader of this group, an older man who looks like he's in his 70s, fields a rebound as a two liter bottle comes back to him, rejected by the machine. He takes one look at it, pulls off the plastic cap and blows into half-collapsed bottle. He feeds it back in. The machine takes it. All around the machines are barrels of shredded plastic and broken glass. Igor goes to snap a photo, and one of the Chinese women turns around and squawks at him. She's thinks he's taking a photo of the old man. "Just of the bottles," Igor panics, "I'm only taking pictures of the shredded bottles!" She makes camera motions with her hands. "No… NO!" We point to the barrels of shredded and shattered bottle against the wall of the building, "Just these." There's no way to communicate with her, and she is getting extremely flustered, so we decided to just leave them be. One of the things we have to respect is that no matter who is collecting these bottles this is their job and we're in their office.

We go back to Key Foods. The bottle machine is finally working, and Milton is still there, talking out loud as if we were standing behind him the whole time. A rejected bottle comes back to him, "Lookit this! I bring Key Food Brand water back to Key Foods and I can't even get me a nickel." Milton pulls another plastic bottle out of the reject pit. "It won't take Schweppes ! It should take SchweppEs!" Bottles that get stuck in the machines or that don't scan properly are still valid for a refund, but Milton doesn't want to deal with tracking down a manager so he can get his money. "These machines are always breaking!" Milton is getting annoyed, so we change the subject and start asking some questions. He's been collecting for 15 years. Turns out, unlike a lot of the people we talked to who have a specific turf, Milton recycles everywhere he goes: Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens. "But Queens's the best--they're all rich people. They don't have them crack heads going through their trash." As we talk, a van drives past. "During the course of a week I can make anywhere from a buck fifty to $200. The money is definitely good, but it depends on your legs. You gotta walk, partner. If I had that van, I'd be a rich man. All I'd have to do is ride around and pick up all the aluminum and all of the plastic. Money in the bank!" TEXT BY BRENDAN SULLIVAN PHOTOS AND ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NATE "IGOR" SMITH Previously:

The Bottle Report - Week 1