In 1982, the state of New York passed the Bottle Bill, which encourages proper recycling by requiring a five-cent deposit on certain beverage containers. Since its enactment, researchers estimate that approximately 10,000 people — many of whom come from a low-income background — in New York City alone have taken advantage of this incentive and pick up empty cans to earn money every year.
Still, full-time canning has not necessarily translated into a livable income for many canners. A 2018 Gothamist article, for instance, pointed out that one woman who lived with her grown son made just $10,000 a year, well below the poverty guideline of $16,910 for a two-person household. Even the most efficient canners that were profiled by Gothamist made just over $40,000 — and they had to redeem almost 1 million items to earn that much.
Yet, many canners see their work as a dignified way to make money (and rightfully so), especially because canning also helps the environment. Since the Bottle Bill’s passage, New Yorkers have recycled over 4.5 billion plastic, glass and aluminum beverage containers every year, eliminating nearly 200,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
“It’s good for the environment,” Anthony Pemberton, a canner, told the Guardian in a 2019 interview. “And I’m a conservationist. You do also get five cents per can, which is a motivator.”
And that’s not all. To provide further support and assistance to canners like Pemberton, Catholic nun Ana de Luco and canner Eugene Gadsden created Sure We Can (SWC), a Brooklyn-based, homeless-friendly nonprofit that gives canners “a place to store, organize and exchange what they have collected.” Founded in 2007, SWC has served more than 400 canners and expanded into a community center that promotes sustainability and recycling.
“The center is therapeutic,” de Luco told the New York Times in a 2015 interview. “It redeems people too.”
According to the nonprofit’s website, SWC operates based on three fundamental principles: social inclusion, environmental sustainability and economic development. In addition to paying canners for every can that is redeemed, SWC provides one-on-one counseling, while also fostering the development of community gardens and an “income-generating compost program.” In addition, the nonprofit hosts local art exhibits and collaborates with schools and universities on educational initiatives.
“Just like that five-cent bottle thrown in the street still has some value, we learn to appreciate the value of a human being discarded by society as useless,” de Luco told the Times. “For us, every human being is valuable.”
For canners like Chicago Crosby (who also brings her cans to SWC), that value is evident in the work she does nearly every day.
“I’m doing something beneficial on a global level,” she told CNN in a recent interview. “So, you needn’t feel embarrassed or afraid for me.”
If you enjoyed this story, you might want to read about this 21-year-old detective who is scrubbing the environment of chemical contaminants.
More from In The Know: