‘The city ought to clarify that canning is legal, revoke the obscure laws that occasionally levy fines against canners, and provide support to organizations that provide water, shelter, advocacy, and community to canners.

Adi Talwar

Sure We Can, a non-profit homeless-friendly center for redeeming beverage containers in the East Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was founded in 2007.

With more than 1.5 million New Yorker’s unemployed, some have been turning to the subsistence work canning has to offer. Canning, turning in beverage bottles for the 5 cent deposit under the Bottle Bill, has long provided a way for the most marginalized members of our communities to make ends meet. At best, an individual might be able to make $30 after a long day of collecting bottles and cans, but for desperate and hungry New Yorker’s this cash can be life saving. As the availability of this work becomes even more vital for New Yorker’s we need to defend the legitimacy of the practice. 

Canners have long been blamed for putting New York City’s recycling program at risk by SIMS, the for-profit recycling giant that sorts and sells the City’s discard, and the DSNY. Supposedly, canners will take bottles and cans from recycling bins, diverting valuable materials away from SIMS, thus undercutting their ability to remain financially viable. Despite smear campaigns against canning like “Stealing Recycling’s Future”, the development of laws to curb certain methods of canning, multiple efforts to limit the expansion of the Bottle Bill, and efforts to cast doubt on the legality of canning, neither SIMS nor the DSNY have ever collected any data to ascertain the real impact of canning on the curbside recycling program even as they propagate stories about canners’ effect in reports and educational tours. 

The truth is the impact of canners is negligible. Using data from the DSNY and Sure We Can, a non-profit that works with canners in Brooklyn, I was able to come up with a rough estimate of impact. 

Sure We Can serves a community of around 550 canners. In 2015 canners were able to deposit 697 tons worth of glass, metal, and plastic beverage bottles back to the distributors like Coca-Cola and Budweiser. Sure We Can estimates there are about 5,000 canners in the city whereas upper-most estimates put the canning population at about 10,000. This means that in a year canners could theoretically be recycling 6,336 to 12,672 tons. This is compared to the 216,600 tons of metals, glass, and plastics (the same category of recycling as the beverage bottles) they took in 2017. The study pointed out that some of these percentages may not reflect the amount of recyclables circulating in NYC because canners divert these materials before they end up in bags meant for the landfill or for SIMS. 

All in all, the work of canners represents a 1.3 percent-3 percent diversion rate of MGPs–if we assume that 50 percent of their materials comes from blue bins, when it might be closer to 25 percent-40 percent. 

Canners make up one of the most vulnerable communities in New York City. Most of them are senior citizens. Many are homeless, disabled, or both. Many are immigrants with little understanding of the English language and limited access to resources. These confounding factors have made them extremely vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 as they struggle to shelter in place. Christine Hegel, a professor of Anthropology at Western Connecticut State University and Sure We Can volunteer, says that even as new faces are showing up to Sure We Can to redeem bottles, “A lot of Chinese canners have not returned, yet, and certainly a fair number of elderly canners have not returned. Some of that I think is just because of their own and their families’ concern about the risk of COVID. For others it may be instances that they have passed away.” 

Yet, even as newly disadvantaged people look to do this subsistence work earnings for canners are plummeting. Hegel’s research shows that because redemption centers were largely closed in April canners reported “no or negligible income” for that month. The impacts have lasted–in June income was down 40 percent and canners have been relying on non-profits for food assistance and access to PPE. 

The city’s recycling program is failing at getting New York to it’s Zero-Waste goals, but it’s not because of canners. Only 15 percent of public housing complexes provide access to recycling bins, the DSNY estimates that only half of the metals, glass, and plastics in the city are properly disposed of in blue bins, while capture rates for other recyclable materials also lags behind. Industrial waste is also a huge problem which isn’t as heavily managed as the petty discard of individuals. For example, New York City produces 6 million tons of debris in a given year yet little of it gets recycled as it isn’t required. In the face of these massive structural issues, it’s completely inappropriate to stigmatize the subsistence work of canners. 

The city ought to clarify that canning is legal, revoke the obscure laws that occasionally levy fines against canners, and provide support to organizations like Sure We Can which provide water, shelter, advocacy, and community to canners. 

Shanti Escalante-De Matteo is a freelance writer and former research intern at Sure We Can.