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Lauren Kaori Gurley

NYC's Last Non-Profit Can Redemption Center Is Fighting to Stay Open

Since the 1980s, redemption centers have served as a lifeline for thousands of New York City residents who collect bottles and cans for a living—especially during economic crises.
May 28, 2020, 2:07pm

When Josefa Marín arrived in New York City in 1988 from Puebla, Mexico, she found a job sewing pants in a factory. After work, Marín picked up cans and bottles on the street and exchanged them at supermarket redemption machines for an extra dollar or two.

Six years earlier, in a 1982 effort led by environmentalists to encourage recycling, New York became the eighth state to implement a “Bottle Bill,” which allowed consumers to return soda and beer containers to authorized retailers and redemption centers for 5-cents apiece. Beverage distribution companies pass this fee along to retailers who pass it onto customers. As an unintended impact of the bill—which coincided with cuts to the city's social spending and a surge in homelessness —thousands of New Yorkers like Marín turned to "canning”—collecting bottles and cans in exchange for money—as a source of income.

Today, by some estimates, the city is home to 10,000 canners. And after decades of practice, Josefa and her partner Pedro collect upwards of 6,000 cans a day, sometimes earning $300. (The 5-cent redemption price has not been raised since the bill’s passage in 1982.) On canning income, the couple rents a $1,500-a-month apartment, owns a car, and supports their teenage son.

“I like canning better than working in a factory because I can be my own boss, my own manager, and my own employee,” Marín told Motherboard in Spanish in February. “If I want to make more money, I just have to work faster.”

But earning a living by canning poses many challenges, in part because few formal institutions support canners. Many New York City supermarkets have redemption machines, which can legally impose $12-a-day, or 240-can limits on redemptions. Most canners prefer to redeem at one of the city’s 40-odd redemption centers. In some states, including New York, redemption centers return bottles and cans back to their distributors for a 3.5 cent handling fee, which fuels their business.

Marín goes to Sure We Can, the city’s only non-profit redemption center, in the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. While a handful of nearby redemption centers have shut down due to rising rent since 2017, the number of canners redeeming at Sure We Can has boomed in recent years. The center recycled 12 million bottles and cans and attracted 800 canners in 2019, up from 500 in 2017.

But Sure We Can now faces the looming threat of eviction. In February, the non-profit received a letter from its landlord asking the tenants to leave the property by the end of April, triggering concern among its regulars who rely on the center to pay for rent and food, particularly during the unemployment crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a lot of redemption centers in this city, but none like this one,” Marín said. “This place is special. We can work under tables that are protected from the sun and wind and snow and rain, and have a community. At other centers, you have to work on the street.”

Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

Canners relish the center’s amenities: bathrooms, a handwashing station, cages for storage space, and a covered sorting station where they can separate their bottles by brand and material for an extra cent a piece. The lot itself is brimming with bottles and cans stacked inside crates, cartons, shipping containers, cages, or on top of shacks and sheds. On business days, even during the pandemic, one can hear the chatter of canners in Spanish and Chinese, and the clinking of cans and bottles, which are sorted by brand and material, then stored in clear and blue plastic bags. Later, they're stacked onto towering wooden pallets for distributors to pick up.

For canners—many of whom are undocumented immigrants, elderly, live in public housing, or suffer from mental illness or drug addition—Sure We Can is a rare welcoming space in a city that can be hostile to those without resources or social capital. Under the sheltered sorting station, canners throw birthday parties and host holiday celebrations. On a Saturday in early March, prior to shelter-in-place orders, I met with dozens of canners gathered at Sure We Can to celebrate International Day of the Recycler with cups of coffee, donuts, elotes, and bachata music.

“There’s the sense that we represent a community that doesn’t have any political capital, in any form. We can’t go to our city councilman and say these people won’t vote for you if you don’t help us, because they don’t vote."

During the 2008 economic crash, Sure We Can was founded under the name “We Can” in Chelsea by Ana Martinez de Luco, a Spanish nun. It has moved four times since then, before arriving at its Bushwick location in 2010. Martinez de Luco says that its closure would hurt the many vulnerable communities in Bushwick who rely on it for a livelihood.

“The main priority for canners is accessibility. They want redemption centers close to where they pick up,” Martinez de Luco told Motherboard. “At least four nearby redemption centers have closed in the area, and so more people started coming here in recent years.”

Martinez de Luco wants to purchase the Bushwick lot it works out of, which it rents for $5,461 a month, but will need outside funding to do so. The lot has been appraised at $2.6 million. At the end of April, the landlord agreed to extend the lease through May to allow the redemption center more time to apply for funding from the city.

“We have no plans to leave. We still have a period of time even once a formal legally binding eviction would be issued,” said Castalia, the programs manager at Sure We Can. “And then even given that we would fight that in court, so we hope to extend our period here as long as legally possible.”

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The number of redemption centers in New York City has been in steady decline for years as the real value of cans and bottles has dropped, while the luxury New York real estate market has boomed. Surging Manhattan real estate prices have driven every redemption center off the island; those centers have been supplanted by midnight pop-up markets under the Manhattan Bridge and on Wall Street for canners to redeem cans and bottles. In Bushwick, a handful of redemption centers have shuttered in recent years. The closure of redemption centers means fewer canners, who play a crucial role in keeping city streets clean and diverting millions of tons of cans and bottles from landfills.

“Redeemers have been vitally important to the functioning of New York’s law from the beginning,” Judith Enck, a senior fellow at Bennington University who worked to pass New York state’s first bottle legislation in 1983, told Motherboard. “It’s been interesting to see their numbers grow and disappointing to see how hard it’s become to find places to take their recycling.”

“There are a lot of people who come here to pay the bills and support their kids. And others do it because they have mental health issues or suffer from drug addiction,” Rene del Carmen, a former canner who works as Sure We Can’s operations manager, told Motherboard in Spanish. “A lot of people maintain their lives here. Without this work they cannot pay for their kids or food.”

Del Carmen, originally from Puebla, Mexico, started canning at night near Grand Central Station in the early 2010s after struggling to hold a job in the restaurant industry because of a drinking problem. After landing in the hospital, he quit drinking but continued to want to shape his life around canning and joined the staff of Sure We Can.

“I think people feel safer and more attended to here. People live like a family,” he said. “They all know each other. There’s an order here to receive them. And we pay them for what they bring. Other redemption centers pay canners less.”

Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

Image: Lauren Kaori Gurley

At Sure We Can, more than three quarters of the regular canners were born outside of the U.S., and 54 percent identify as Latino. The average canner who visits Sure We Can earns $1,000 a year, supplementing their income with government assistance, but earnings vary widely, with some workers taking home up to $40,000 a year. Others earn much less.

“I’m always broke,” George, a Sure We Can regular, who lives in the nearby Williamsburg Houses, a public housing project, told Motherboard in March. “I make $33 working three hours a day at most. Today I made $16. Some days I make $8.”

New York City canners are known to pay apartment building porters for access to garbage, but Marín says she does not do this.

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Since 1971, when Oregon passed the nation’s first bottle bill, 10 states have followed suit. Many of these bills, like New York’s, are in need of an expansion that raises the deposit and includes new beverage containers. A nickel in 1982, when the Bottle Bill was passed, was worth nearly three times what it's worth today.

Sure We Can is pushing for legislators to pass an expansion of the Bottle Bill that would increase the deposit and handling fees (which support redemption centers) to 10 and 5 cents respectively, which has earned the support of some state and local politicians.

Last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislators proposed an update to the legislation, which would add non-carbonated beverages including juice, vegetable, and sports drinks, as well as iced tea and coffee beverages. Other state legislators sponsored a bill last year that would expand the bill to include wine and liquor bottles, which would cover 1.3 billion containers a year. Expanding the bottle bill would bring in millions of dollars of revenue for New York state, which collects 4 cents from every bottle and can that goes unredeemed. (The remaining cent goes to beverage distribution companies.) Already the state makes $100 million a year from the program.

Sure We Can supports both expansion plans. But since the pandemic broke out, most of these conversations have been put on hold.

“There’s the sense that we represent a community that doesn’t have any political capital, in any form,” said Ryan Castalia, the programs manager at Sure We Can. “We can’t go to our city councilman and say these people won’t vote for you if you don’t help us, because they don’t vote. It’s hard for canners to advocate for themselves when society is saying you have nothing to offer us in terms of money and votes. What they do have to offer is their labor and their capacity to build community. The question for us is how these things can be recognized.”

Making matters trickier, New York City runs a competing recycling program with New York state and has opposed expansions to the bill.

Expanding the Bottle Bill would allow the city’s recycling processor, Sims Municipal Recycling, to raise its rates, causing the city to lose money. The city’s 20-year contract with Sims contains provisions that require revenue-sharing between Sims and the city when the value of commodities is high, but it also includes so-called “adjustments” if the city cannot collect enough materials due to new legislation that removes more beverage containers from the waste stream. Then the onus falls on the city to pay additional amounts.

Lauren Kaori GUrley

Meanwhile, Sims, which selling cans and bottles to third-party commodities buyers for most of its revenue, opposes Cuomo’s legislation that would add iced tea, juice, coffee, and sports drinks to the Bottle Bill, while supporting putting a deposit on wine and liquor bottles, according to Tom Outerbridge, the General Manager of Sims Municipal Recycling. This is because aluminum and plastics have the strongest market value to third party buyers, while the value of glass—which is more difficult to process—is worth close to nothing. In other words, Sims would benefit from having glass wine and liquor bottles removed from the waste stream, but lose revenue without plastic and aluminum containers.

Experts say that the number of canners in New York City is likely to climb in the coming months as thousands of unemployed New Yorkers look for new sources of income in the absence of job opportunities.

“The revenues associated with the sale of the commodities are a big part of the equation for us...Millions and millions of [those] dollars are diverted from the waste stream in New York City,” Outerbridge told Motherboard. “When you strip out [plastics] and aluminum, you aren’t left with much revenue.”

In New Jersey, which doesn’t have a bottle bill, Sims receives up to $30 more per load of waste more than does it in New York City, says Outerbridge.

“It’s not that we have an anti-canner position,” said Outerbridge. “Personally I feel for these people, and believe they’re not out to hurt us, but we bring these issues up because we want people and policymakers to realize their implications….If you’re goal is providing a livelihood for these people, you probably need a better solution [than canning.]”

Beverage distribution companies such as Pepsi-Cola (Aquafina, Pepsi, Mountain Dew), Manhattan Beer (Corona, Heineken) and Union Brewing (Budweiser, Anheuser-Busch), which must buy back redeemed containers, also oppose the expansion of bottling legislation.

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No one knows exactly how many canners live in New York City, but the environmental consulting firm Eumonia estimated the number to be between 4,000 and 8,000 in 2019. Sure We Can’s co-founder believes there's more than 10,000, and experts say that the number is likely to climb in the coming months as thousands of unemployed New Yorkers look for new sources of income in the absence of job opportunities. During the cuts to social welfare spending in the Reagan years, the canning community swelled. And in 2009, a modification to the Bottle Bill to include water bottles, during the peak of the financial crisis, incentivized thousands of New Yorkers to take up canning.

“I see some parallels between the pandemic and the time when the Bottle Bill passed during the Reagan years,” Enck, the Bennington University instructor who worked to pass New York state’s first bottle legislation in 1983, told Motherboard. “We thought kids would go out and collect bottles, but so many people were unemployed at the time and began looking to supplement their income with canning. It was an unexpected outcome.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Sure We Can’s staffers say canners, particularly the large Chinese immigrant community, stopped showing up. Martinez de Luco suspects this is because of knowledge of the virus’s impact on the elderly in China and fears of racially-targeted violence. (Martinez de Luco has received reports of Chinese canners facing harassment on the street since the pandemic broke out). But in the months to come, she expects that number to grow.

“During the 2008 financial crisis, there was such a loss of jobs in the city, thousands of people started canning,” said Martinez de Luco. “It was a real boom for the sector.”

Martinez de Luco says she will fight to keep Sure We Can open, but in order to support canners during the crisis and prevent the closure of more redemption centers, the state will need to pass legislation to expand the Bottle Bill.

“The improvement of the Bottle Bill in 2009 led to more redemption centers and canners,” said Martinez de Luco. “The best way to help people now is to increase the types of containers and increase the deposit. Believe me, people won’t stop buying Pepsi-Cola if it costs five cents more, since bodegas are constantly raising their prices. But for those of us who make a livelihood off of that, to have ten cents instead of five cents would change everything.”