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In New York, making ends meet on the 5-cent recycling deposit

The price of Manhattan real estate has forced every dedicated bottle-and-can redemption center off the island, leaving canners to feed their containers one at a time into supermarket redemption machines

By Andy Newman
Published: Dec 26, 2019

In New York, making ends meet on the 5-cent recycling depositA hauler collects bags from can scavengers at a meet up spot under the Manhattan Bridge, Nov. 20, 2019. An entire economic ecosystem has sprouted from the artificial turf of a 5-cent deposit—fleets of trucks, clashes between canners and truckers, price wars, middlemen and coordinated handoffs. Image: Andrew Seng/The New York Times

NEW YORK — At 3 o’clock one recent Friday afternoon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, three blocks from the mayor’s residence at Gracie Mansion, a woman named Rosa approached an elegant prewar building where apartments rent for $13,500 per month.

On cue, the building’s porter brought out about 20 blue bags filled with cans and bottles and set them on the sidewalk. He slipped Rosa a handful of empty 50-gallon, clear plastic bags. “Anything you need, Mami.”

Rosa hunkered down to work. She fished through the blue bags for containers with 5-cent deposits, pulling out can after can after bottle after bottle and dropping them into her clear bag, where they landed like nickels tumbling from a slot machine.

Her rubber-gloved hands flew quickly and nimbly. She has been picking cans since the factory where she worked in Manhattan’s vanishing garment district closed a dozen years ago.

The sun dipped toward Central Park. Plaid-skirted teenagers from the private school around the corner passed by, shouting and giggling. A young man in a maroon V-neck sweater walked a wire-haired dachshund. Rosa did not look up. She had no time.

In one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in one of the richest cities on earth, the sight of millionaires strolling past people pawing through trash for the means to survive is familiar. But what happens to a salvaged can might not be.

In recent years, an entire economic ecosystem has sprouted from the artificial turf of a 5-cent deposit. It includes fleets of trucks, clashes between canners uptown and between truckers at an open-air canning market downtown, price wars and middlemen and coordinated handoffs.

And now, tensions are growing over a proposal to expand the types of drinks that come under the deposit law. The measure would mean more money for canners, but an unlikely alliance of environmental activists, beverage companies and government officials opposes it.

A man in a truck meets Rosa at an assigned address. He rolls up his cargo door, loads in her bags and hands her a wad of cash: $10 for each bag of 200 cans and bottles. He drives off to his next corner, where another canner waits. And another, and another, until the 24-foot truck is full and the driver heads off to a teeming lot beside an industrial alley 20 miles away where other trucks plying other neighborhoods bring their precious cargo of throwaways.

On the Upper East Side, big, well-staffed apartment houses and newer luxury towers generate fortress-size heaps of carefully organized trash. Residents are both conscientious recyclers — the neighborhood has one of the city’s highest recycling rates — and rich enough not to worry about tossing away a nickel.

But the price of Manhattan real estate has also forced every dedicated bottle-and-can redemption center off the island, leaving canners to feed their containers one at a time into supermarket redemption machines, which can impose a $12-per-day limit, or lug them to recycling centers in the Bronx and Queens and Brooklyn.

Into this void have stepped redemption companies that send out trucks to buy from canners on the street, following the migrant miners who follow the city’s recycling schedule night after night.

The owner of one such firm, Conrad Cutler, has his own term for the serious canner.

“We have a Rolodex of ‘bottle professionals’ throughout the five boroughs,” said Cutler. His company, Galvanize Group, based just north of the city in Mount Vernon, buys about half a million containers a week from Manhattan street canners.

Rosa, who is 36, moved to New York from Ecuador 16 years ago and has two sisters who also worked at the clothing factory, making dresses and shirts. They, too, are now canners.

“Before, it wasn’t like it is now; we had to go to the Bronx to sell the bottles,” Rosa said. “Now trucks come.”

Her regular driver works for a Brooklyn company called Mainstream Recycling. She does not know his name; the contact in her phone simply says “botella” — Spanish for bottle.

No one knows how many people in the city make a living returning deposit containers, but this year an environmental consulting firm, Eunomia, estimated the number at 4,000 to 8,000. And the operators of half a dozen of the city’s 40-odd redemption centers said the ranks of canners were growing.

“Definitely more,” said the owner of Mainstream Recycling, Vladimir Zabrodin. “Much more.”

Ana Martinez de Luco, a nun who runs a huge nonprofit redemption center called Sure We Can in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said the growth showed that even in a strong economy, prospects for people at the bottom of the economic ladder — the rung below minimum wage — were as bleak as ever.

“Really, it’s the harsh time that people have with the living cost of the city,” Martinez de Luco said. Many canners are retired or on disability and need to stretch their monthly payments. Many lack legal status and are drawn to a no-questions-asked job without language barriers.

As stable, low-skill jobs continue to disappear in New York, canning provides a lifeline.

Expansion Draws Opposition
New York state’s deposit system, established in 1982 to encourage recycling, is surprisingly serpentine but it basically works like this: When a beverage distributor sells a can of soda to a store, it charges an extra 5 cents. The store charges the customer an extra 5 cents. If the customer brings the empty can back, the store returns her deposit and sells the empty back to the distributor for recycling, and collects a 3.5-cent handling fee. If the customer puts the can out for curbside recycling, though, the city’s system kicks in. The city hauls the can to its recycling contractor, which charges the city a fluctuating fee.

But if a canner takes the can out of the curbside recycling, the city loses it. And that matters to the city, because the fee that the city pays to get rid of its recyclables depends partly on what’s in the mix: the more high-value cans and plastic bottles, the better the deal the city gets.

After the canner sells her cans and bottles to the redemption company, the company sells it to the distributor for a nickel plus the 3.5-cent handling fee. The 3.5 cents fuels the redemption business.

The city, which started mandatory curbside recycling in 1989 under a state order, prefers that New Yorkers donate their deposit containers to the city curbside program, but understands that they might not want to.

“DSNY is fine with residents collecting redeemable containers,” a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Sanitation said: “We do not oppose residents who do this to make ends meet.”

State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have proposed extending the deposit to include other noncarbonated drinks, as well as wine and liquor.

The expansion would cover 1.3 billion containers a year. It would also let New York City’s recycling processor raise its rates.

Which is exactly why the city opposes it.

“The more of that that gets taken away from municipal collection, the more that the city’s property tax owners are going to have to pay for,” the city’s sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, told state lawmakers at a hearing in October.

“We don’t want the glass and all the other crap,” she added. “We want the good stuff, we want the metal and the good plastics.”

The beverage industry, which bears the cost of buying back redeemed containers, also resists the expansion. Even the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote that it would “punch a hole in the economic model of curbside recycling.”

The beverage industry and some lawmakers also contend that there is extensive fraud in the redemption business.

The state’s interest in expanding the deposit law is not purely environmental. For every deposit container that is not redeemed, the state seizes 4 cents of the unclaimed 5-cent deposit. The state already rakes in $100 million a year this way and would make many millions more if the law were expanded.

At Sure We Can, the redemption center in Brooklyn, Martinez de Luco noted that a nickel is not worth what it was in 1982 (it now takes 13 cents to buy what a nickel bought then).

She said that opposition to expanding the bottle bill reminded her of the biblical tale of Lazarus, the beggar who is sent away hungry from the rich man’s feast.

“We’ve reached the point where even the scraps of the table we can’t take,” she said.

The Predawn Accounting
In the wee hours of a Wednesday last month, two dozen men and women, all of them Chinese immigrants, rolled laden shopping carts down to the concrete-and-stone footing of the Manhattan Bridge on the fringe of Chinatown. At the curb, they tallied and sorted their cans and bottles and scrawled invoices on cardboard scraps or paper plates.

They were waiting for Danny Farias, who has worked the Manhattan Bridge stop for two years and occasionally fended off rival truckers. “This is my spot,” said Farias, 55. “This is how I put food on my table.”

Farias arrived shortly after 3 a.m. He had just come from Wall Street. After this he had to drop his truck at Mainstream Recycling in Brooklyn, pick up an empty one and drive it to the Bronx.

Farias has an uncanny ability to eyeball a bag and see if it is short 10 containers. He examined the goods presented by a man in his 70s, rechecked the man’s invoice, then suddenly opened the bag and pulled out two large bottles that were making the bag look more full.

“You can’t do that,” Farias said, and handed the man a smaller sum. The canner walked away with his hands in his pockets and his head down. Farias said that canners have been known to pad their counts with ketchup bottles, soy sauce bottles, anything.

Just before dawn, as Farias was about to roll away, a rattling echoed under the bridge. A woman appeared pulling ropes attached to a shopping wagon piled high with bundles. In front of her, she pushed a smaller cart of glass bottles.

“She’s always late,” Farias said.

The woman, Lin Meixian, 52, had taken the subway from her home in Queens and had picked up cans from the basement of a small hotel in Chinatown where she worked as a custodian.

Farias could not wait. He arranged for another truck, but it would not arrive for two hours.

Lin sat on a milk crate. She talked in Mandarin about the difficulties in her life. She had never learned to read, which made it hard to find a job. Her husband recently had brain surgery and can no longer work at restaurants.

She expected $90 from this haul, which represented three nights’ work.

Eventually the second truck arrived and bought Lin’s cans. As she rattled her way up Pike Street, her thoughts turned to her husband, and tears welled in her eyes.

She said things had gotten so hard that her mother-in-law in China was sending her money — the immigrant dream in reverse. She was grateful, but worried about providing for her family.

“I never thought,” she said, “that in America I would be doing this kind of work.”

Unwritten Rules
Canning works out best for veterans like Rosa who have made exclusive arrangements with custodial workers at buildings. She put her 19-year-old daughter through medical-assistant school on her canning wages. That Friday evening last month, she went home with $135 for five hours’ labor.

It is widely believed that canners pay porters for access to a building’s recycling, but Rosa and a half-dozen other canners said that they never paid anything.

Raymond Whitley, 75, a longtime Upper East Side canner, said that payments used to be commonplace and included “sexual favors, the whole nine yards.”

Whitley, in semiretirement, commutes from his home near Kennedy Airport in Queens to collect from his three regular buildings on Fridays. They net him about $70 worth of cans, which he sells to a canner named Marie for $65 rather than wait for the truck. “The truck might come at 6:30. It might come at 7,” Whitley said. “So I don’t take the chance.”

When a canner is working a pile, it is considered bad form for another to elbow in. Most canners follow an unwritten code to respect each other’s routes, said Dionisia Rivera, a 42-year-old canner from Mexico who has worked the Upper East Side for 10 years.

But sometimes thieves swoop in.

One evening last month, a tall man crossed 86th Street making off with a bag of cans that Rosa had collected. She tore after him and caught him before he got to the curb.

“Give me my bag!” she screamed and grabbed onto it.

“It’s mine!” he yelled back. He threw a leg over the bag and tried to shoulder Rosa away. He had at least half a foot and perhaps 75 pounds on her, but she would not let go. A loud tug-of-war ensued. Passers-by pretended not to notice.

Finally Rosa gave one sharp yank and the bag flew open and 200 cans and bottles clattered into the street.

The man stalked off, cursing her over his shoulder.

Shaking, Rosa jammed the containers back in the bag. Then she hustled off around the corner to the cans she’d left unguarded.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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