A Load of Garbage

IMG_6346By: Dave Meyer (United States)

There are places in New York where it seems like money flows from the faucets.  Executives earning tens of thousands of dollars a day, apartments selling for tens of millions, art auctions bringing in hundreds of millions.

And then every night at dusk, when the trash bags are placed on the curb, from the wealthiest neighborhoods to the poorest, the canners come out.  Sorting through garbage for cans and bottles that can be redeemed for five cents each, the best canners can earn 200 dollars a week, working twelve hour shifts, from dusk to dawn.  For some, it’s enough to pay for a small apartment, some food, or to send a little home to support an extended family in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, China, or eastern Europe…

Others though are not so ambitious.  While it’s the carts loaded with garbage bags full of cans that most people associate with canners, spending time at Sure We Can, a co-operative redemption center in Bushwick Brooklyn that is owned and operated by canners themselves, you see the people who rely on canning just to make ends meet.  People who come in with enough cans to pay for lunch, to get a cup of coffee.  They spend their days as supers in buildings or as handymen picking up odd jobs, and then their nights gathering together cans in order to make the paycheck last just a bit longer.

There is nothing unique to New York about all this.  Worldwide, millions of people live off of garbage.  In Guatemala City, they live in the dump and sort through the trash after it comes off the trucks.  In Montevideo, they wander the city with donkey carts collecting scrap metal, glass, plastic, cardboard.  In India alone an estimated 1.5 million people live from picking through waste.

Canners, whatever their local name might be, are generally seen as a nuisance.  In Montevideo, the local government calls regularly for the clasificadores to be kept off the streets, and is developing plans to bring in multinational waste management companies to handle the city’s recycling.

This is just what happens in New York, according to Ana Martinez de Luco from Sure We Can.  The city contracts its recycling and sorting to companies that are guaranteed a certain volume of recyclables per year in exchange for handling the waste in massive recycling centers.

All of this is great if you’re earning tens of thousands of dollars a day playing the markets and moving money around – recycling can be turned into a stock to short or an industry to bet against.  But it’s bad for the canners, and it’s bad for society as a whole.  A canner’s earnings are a pittance to the market, but his impact to the city isn’t negligible.  That same canner who earns 200 dollars a week can represent over 45 tons of bottles removed from the waste flow of New York each year.  All of it hand-sorted, in rain or snow, on the hottest day of the year or during a hurricane, transported by foot through the streets using nothing but an old shopping cart or two.  Five cents a can means a family that isn’t sleeping on the street and children eating three meals a day.

So many lies are told about the poor and public assistance in the US.  Our politicians are constantly warning us that we are becoming a nation of “takers” rather than “makers,” and Reagan-era notions of “welfare queens” living off the system still cloud serious debate over any social assistance programs.  You would think that canners in places like Sure We Can would be the poster children for America’s future.  Instead they face harassment from sanitation department employees and the police – with the economic downturn, more New Yorkers have turned to canning to get by, and the city is having a hard time meeting the quotas it owes to the waste management companies.

Why not quotas owed to canners instead?  Why not the right to work with dignity, to be treated with respect?  For five cents a can, it would seem the least we could do.  Unfortunately, as Ana from Sure We Can says: “If you spend enough time around garbage, you end up getting treated like garbage.”

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