There are 10,000 can and bottle collectors in New York City who rely on turning in used containers to claim the deposits as a source of income. About 800 of them visited Brooklyn’s Sure We Can last year, which collected a total of 12 million recyclable vessels. Now, though, the non-profit redemption center may have to relocate to a less central area, putting the livelihoods of low income, homeless and undocumented people at risk.
Ana Martinez DeLuco and Eugene Gadsden co-founded Sure We Can in 2007 as a way to give people a centralized place to turn in cans and bottles for recycling. DeLuco, who is a Catholic nun, had lived with the homeless community in Manhattan and saw how collectors - or canners as they like to call themselves - were providing an environmental good and putting money in their pockets.
“We pick up cans or whatever we find,” executive director DeLuco said. “And also we tend to empower ourselves as able to manage this sort of consumption and manage our life as much as we can.” When a person purchases a bottle or a can from a retailer, they pay an extra deposit of at least five cents due to the 1983 New York State Bottle Bill. Customers can get that money back if they bring the container to the store they purchased it from or to a redemption center like Sure We Can. Manufacturers pay the establishments the fee back plus 3.5 cents for handling. Sure We Can pays the five cents back to person who brought them the can or bottle, plus an extra 1 cent if they sort the containers by company. The organization then uses the additional 2.5 cents or 3.5 cents extra to run its operations. Sure We Can paid out $780,000 in 2019. On average, people make about $30 to $35 a day.
Usually, the few cents profit is enough to keep Sure We Can running, which has seven employees and four other seasonal workers currently. Staff is mostly hired from the canner community themselves. But the owners of the plot of land the business is renting from have decided to sell. They will allow Sure We Can to buy it for $2.6 million.
Sure We Can has secured money from some donors and bank loans, but still needs about $1.3 million from public city funds to buy the lot. However, to get public funds, the organization would need a three-year redemption contract of at least $50,000 with New York City -- which would violate non-compete laws due to a contract the city already has with Sims Municipal Recycling. DeLuco compared it to a bird in a cage with a string tied around its leg. The cage door is open, but they can’t fly because of bureaucracy. “They know it’s impossible,” she said.
A range of people take up canning. Some are trying to supplement their income or disability checks, DeLuco explained. Some are elderly people looking for activities. Others have developmental disabilities and find canning as a way to give them purpose.
“It’s not just the five cents, but the whole issue of activity which they can do and they like to do,” she said. “And the people who surround them in this community, they welcome them.”
For a few, it’s their only source of income because they are unable to work legally in the U.S., DeLuco added. One couple brought in $200 worth of containers and was sorting them outside the gate to social distance from other patrons. It was the culmination of 14 hours of hard work. They partnered with individuals throughout the city, who would collect cans and bottles and give it to them. They would then pay those individuals 5 cents and keep the 1 cent sorting fee.
“There is a group who has no legal status so they cannot apply for any kind of help,” she said. “So for them, it is really everything.”
The redemption center has a composting area, and is building ecologically sustainable safe spaces for its canner community to get coffee and rest. It’s growing vegetables to help people supplement their food. It’s also meant to be a space anyone can feel like they can belong in the city, especially with luxury high rises pushing out low-income individuals.
“It has the two purposes of taking care of the common home the earth and taking care of those who have no home in our community,” she explained.
Gentrification often pushes out the marginalized, but it’s also important to remember they too make up New York City - and they are worthy of help, DeLuco said.