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A Revolution Is Taking Place, One Can at a Time

“Waste pickers” are helping the planet while paying their bills—it’s time to show them some respect

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•• All photographs by Ali Smith ••

What do you see when the temperature is 23 degrees and you pass a small woman folded into the shape of a question mark digging through the trash on a street corner. She’s maybe around 70, and she doesn’t look unhappy, just matter-of-fact, as she goes about her business of adding bottles and cans to two enormous plastic bags balanced on top of a shopping cart with one wonky wheel.

Even just a month ago, I might have assumed she was an outsider, desperate. But knowing what I do now, I see her for what she is: part of a revolution.

WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) estimates that there are 8,000 to 10,000 “canners”—waste pickers who collect containers and redeem them for money—working on New York City’s streets. Of the 900 served regularly at Sure We Can, New York’s only nonprofit bottle and can redemption center, the same study reports that 55% are Latinx, 24% are Black, and 18% are Asian. A third are over 60, and 80% live below the poverty line.

But those are stats. Who are these people?

When I visit Sure We Can, Pedro Romero is climbing down from the storage locker he shares with his wife, Josefa Marín. He smiles at me and looks positively Lilliputian under the enormity of the bags he carries, but he handles his burdens with ease before depositing them in front of Josefa. Her eyes are dark and lively and she smiles so much as I try to be understood in my halted, broken Spanish that I can’t help but wonder if she’s laughing at me—until I realize how effortlessly she laughs with everyone around her. The two chat and toss bottles and cans across each other into bags, separating them by distributor: Union Beer, PepsiCo, Manhattan Beer.… It’s the end of a long weekend of hard work, and it will now take them around nine hours to sort their haul. They will make 5 cents a container, plus 1 to 1.25 cents more from Sure We Can for sorting them.

Another canner, Lastenia Quizhpi, is polite but reserved. Her daughter, Jessica, 19, studies operations management and analytics at Baruch College; the part of her tuition that is not covered by financial aid is paid for by her mother’s canning. Jessica collected with her mother until she was 12, when a neighbor reported them to Child Protective Services. Although she doesn’t do it full-time, when Jessica sees an opportunity to collect containers now, it’s hard to resist. “It’s like when I see a penny on the floor, I pick it up even though it isn’t worth much. It was embarrassing when I was a child, not now.”

The lot is full of movement. People sort containers, stack crates full of bottles 10 feet high; mountains of bags full of water bottles teeter intimidatingly overhead. It is an unexpected oasis in this industrial section of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Which is ironic, since the space has no running water. Still, it offers canners a (composting) toilet, much-needed PPE, and food grown in a garden irrigated by captured rainwater through a system built out of found tubing.

There are solitary figures who enter the lot, too, and leave without interacting much with the rest. But they are paid for their work—$4, $10, $30. Some are here casually for the extra income, others are facing barriers to more formal employment, such as homelessness, digital illiteracy, poor education and language skills, and addiction. While there are vast income differences between the top and the lowest earners, the average daily income for a New York City canner is, according to WIEGO, considered to be only $18; $14 at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and bars closed and canners were, like the rest of us, hesitant to go outside. And those numbers are due, in part, to the fact that the redemption rate of 5 cents per container hasn’t gone up since the Bottle Bill set it in 1982. It’s hard to come up with any other expense or salary that hasn’t gone up in 40 years.

Since COVID hit and life turned upside down, Ryan Castalia, Sure We Can’s executive director, has seen an increase in formerly casual canners who now rely solely on this work. One such man, likely in his 50s, who chooses to remain anonymous, is shy and reticent but very diligent and open-hearted. He surprises me by saying, “I think of canning as a form of therapy, mental entertainment.” He adds, “I worked for 40 years doing cleaning service in a six-floor apartment building. They fired me in June 2021 without a reason except ‘because of the pandemic.’ Recycling is how I’m able to pay my share of the rent and feed and dress myself.”

Canning is access to work for those who want it. But don’t think for a second it’s easy work. To make real money takes long shifts. There aren’t any redemption centers in Manhattan, and there is a restrictive daily limit for redeeming at stores and machines, so most canners haul their bags and carts to redemption centers in the outer boroughs. Fifty-five percent of canners are women, and they often work at night, capitalizing on that sweet spot between when businesses and apartment buildings set their garbage curbside and when official collection begins. All of this work is carried out while being subject to frequent harassment, public stigma, and theft. In hopes that greater visibility and legitimacy will help them avoid these pitfalls, Sure We Can issues safety vests and ID cards to their members, as requested.

What is that stigma all about? Why do we judge canners? Carolina Palacio, organizing member of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and self-titled “militant organizer,” has a theory. “There are New York citizens who survive only by going through other peoples’ garbage. People who have had to invent a new source of work—part of a ‘survival economy’—because there isn’t work guaranteed by the state or the private sector.” In a city that boasted 99 billionaires amongst our ranks in 2021, she adds, “This can make people very uncomfortable. Worldwide, waste pickers are a symptom of a workforce that is not working. If we see them as that, we need to address that the system is malfunctioning.”

Pope Francis says of people like waste pickers in grassroots “popular” movements, “You are social poets, because you have the ability and the courage to create hope where there appears to be only waste and exclusion.” (An initiative of Pope Francis, the World Meeting of Popular Movements works to create an “encounter” between Church leadership and grassroots organizations to address the “economy of exclusion and inequality.” That inequality has led to real dangers for canners; in 1992, eleven waste pickers in Columbia were killed so that their bodies could be used for medical research and organ trafficking. March 1st is now considered “Global Waste Pickers’ Day” around the world.)

According to WIEGO, canners belong largely to communities hardest hit by COVID. Their ability to continue to earn a living at the height of the pandemic was decimated not only by shuttered businesses and lack of access to proper PPE in order to work safely but because many got ill or had to care for sick or dying family members. And while most of us working in the formal economy got our stimulus checks with relative ease, many canners had no access to what they were owed, for reasons such as a lack of digital literacy or access, or having no bank account or permanent address. Chicago Crosby is a mother who quit her high-pressure job in the fashion industry to care for her sick mom in 2012. When asked about the risk of canning during COVID, she says, “We just have to get out there and do it or else we’re going to end up with nothing.”

So why do I see a revolutionary when I see a canner?

First, canners are helping to save the planet.

Second, CANNERS ARE HELPING TO SAVE THE PLANET!

It’s a “green job,” part of the “circular economy,” the type of job that leaders like AOC, Bernie Sanders, and President Biden will tell you is the only sustainable way forward. According to Christine Hegel, associate professor of anthropology at Western Connecticut State University and board member at Sure We Can, the 900 canners who came through their lot in 2019 alone diverted 12 million containers from landfills and funneled them back into the redemption system, which is where they belong. “We keep careful records,” says Hegel, “and have provided this data to the DSNY (the New York Department of Sanitation) in the past as part of helping them track diversion rates.” The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation puts the state-wide number of containers diverted by waste-pickers at 5.5 billion in 2020. And that’s a pandemic year.

When we buy a drink, we pay 5 cents extra on the container—which containers are included changes from state to state, country to country. In Montreal, even milk cartons have this fee attached. In NYC, your Snapple (noncarbonated beverage) and Jack Daniels (liquor) bottles don’t. The hope is that we’ll be incentivized to return what we buy to the store, where they’ll pay us back our 5 cents. That store returns our container to the original distributor and collects that nickel back, plus a 3.5 cent handling fee. The distributor then takes on the burden of handling the material they’ve put into the world. The assumption, naturally, is that they will properly reprocess it. This is the concept of EPR—Extended Producer Responsibility: a “cradle to grave” system meant to make corporations responsible for how their packaging choices impact the environment. In 2022, French and German distributors will have to adhere to EPR standards, and many individuals, lawmakers, and eco-organizations, like the Ellen Mac-Arthur Foundation, are pushing to make this policy worldwide.

But most of us don’t return our containers to the store, because it’s boring and we’re busy and there’s that old stigma that we talked about. It makes us feel a vague sense of embarrassment. Most of us, instead, toss ours into curbside recycling. But when we recycle in this way, the financial burden falls to us. Our taxes pay for their pick up and for the private company that sorts and recycles our waste. We pay twice on each container—once when we purchase it, once when we finance the city’s contract to process it. But redeemed containers fed back into the redemption system (by consumers or canners) require no third-party collection and are returned to the company that distributed them and recycled on their dime, which incentivizes corporations to make more sustainable choices. Which is key. Plus, unfortunately, there are always going to be those consumers who toss their recyclables into black garbage bags. Canners pull from those as well, salvaging containers otherwise headed straight for landfills.

The question about what percentage of any collected material—redeemed, municipal, or otherwise—is actually being properly recycled is another issue that hinges on shifting factors, such as resale value of the material. So, if we care about waste, the trend must always be toward reuse and sounder packaging choices. There is no other real solution. But in the meantime, we are chest-deep in the flotsam and jetsam of a modern society, and we must deal with it.

Another reason to care about this work is that providing people with low-barrier entry points to the workforce is a basic human rights issue. According to Oxfam America, COVID has created an explosion of wealth among the 1%, while one person in the 99% is dying, on average, every four seconds from COVID or related issues such as hunger due to poverty, lack of access to good healthcare, and the inability to buy sufficient PPE.

Considering all of this, we have to ask: Who benefits from keeping canners marginalized, their work informal and stigmatized, their efforts undercompensated? The bottom line is: Waste has value. And in New York City, we live in the bull’s-eye of a capitalist society.

Sims Metal Management—an international conglomerate with a state-of-the-art processing facility in Long Island City, Queens—is currently in the middle of a 20-year exclusive contract with the DSNY to process all of the city’s metal, glass, and plastic residential recycling. Under their contract, not only is the company paid by the city but Sims can sell recycled materials back to the industry. Metal has the most resale value, then plastic, and, finally, glass. So, managing the city’s residential waste offers Sims two revenue streams: contract and resale. Other waste management companies profit from contracts for commercial pick-ups. This means that when bars and restaurants work out relationships with individuals instead, it interferes with waste management companies’ profit opportunities.

The DSNY needs Sims, and Sims profits from the arrangement. So it’s not hard to imagine why both have, in the past, publicly referred to canners as “scavengers” and “thieves.” Even the 311 system provides a protocol through which to report “individuals on foot scavenging small quantities of recyclable material.” And while the definition of “scavenger” is technically correct, the word brings to mind carrion-feeders.

I reached out to the DSNY to ask if their opinion had changed at all. Joshua Goodman, assistant commissioner for public affairs, responded: “Those old quotes do not accurately reflect the position of the Department of Sanitation in 2022. We believe in keeping recyclable material out of landfills, and do not oppose any New Yorker redeeming cans and bottles to make ends meet. Anyone who recycles metal, glass, plastic, or paper is helping the City meet its Zero Waste goals, and that is a good thing.”

Hopefully, this shift in tone is being felt on the streets and will be reflected in policies. But when I asked Sims whether it might be open to the incorporation of canners into the waste management system, a representative declined to comment.

In 2016, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio set the lofty (and distant) goal, with the Mayor’s Zero Waste Challenge, of sending no waste from NYC to landfills by 2030. Since then, the DSNY has begun to fund community composting centers with grants, but there are no known comparable plans to support the work of canners. As Sure We Can’s Hegel points out, “There should be multiple points of entry for this work. There is enough waste to go around.”

I can’t help but wonder about another reason the political will might not be there to raise the 5 cent redemption rate, which could motivate more people to return their containers. Before 2009, profits from unclaimed bottle deposits (those that were never redeemed) were returned to distributors. But since then, 80% of unclaimed benefits go to the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance.

Meanwhile, this workforce undulates, like a wave in a consumerist ocean; unseen, but shaping the landscape, helping New York City reach its purported zero-waste goals. An invisible workforce. That is, until now. Because, for the first time in history, canners worldwide are unionizing. The first step, as in any other revolution, is drawing up an outline of beliefs and principles, a list of aspirations and non-negotiables. A constitution.

It’s no easy task to articulate the needs of such a varied group living in different countries under diverse circumstances. But the move, facilitated by WIEGO, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, and organizations worldwide, is not unprecedented. Street vendors, with the Street Vendor Project, and domestic workers, with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, have had their constitutions ratified by the International Labour Organization (ILO), which gives their union leaders a seat at the negotiating table with government reps and policymakers. Before the ILO was founded, in 1919, all workers were informal workers, until widespread acknowledgment of the need for protections made its creation inevitable.

Canner Josefa Marín is one of the authors of this global constitution, which calls for, among other things, safer working conditions, protection from harassment (Asian canners report a sharp rise in victimization since the pandemic began), an expansion of networking and organization worldwide, and improved access to childcare to abolish child labor. Once ratified, regional groups will have more tooth to their fight. In New York, this fight will include working toward getting the redemption rate raised from 5 cents to 10. When asked if she feels empowered by this process, Marín says, “Of course. I am giving something of myself so that our fellow recyclers can be recognized. Other people will learn about those who clean the streets and help the environment.”

As far as raising the redemption rate, Carolina Palacio adds, “Any change that happens in New York City influences not only the rest of the country but potentially the whole world, especially in regard to EPR.” For examples of waste pickers successfully organizing, she points to Buenos Aires City, where they wear uniforms, receive benefits that include childcare, and get a salary for their official involvement in waste management. Palacio makes it clear, though, that this, plus similar successes in Colombia, Africa, Brazil, and India, were all hard-won and met with initial resistance.

While many constitutions are flawed or fall far short of lofty goals (the U.S. Constitution tacitly endorsed slavery while avoiding using the term outright), in general, their intention is understood as offering redemption—from strife, oppression, abuse. In this case, the redemption being asked for by canners is literal. For the rest of us, it may be moral. I now understand these peoples’ rights as a revolution in the way that David was a revolution against Goliath: proving that might doesn’t equal right and that all giants can be toppled, sometimes by the most unassuming forces.

It’s noon, and a shaft of sunlight reaches under the looming Williamsburg Bridge, on the Lower East Side’s Delancey Street. A woman sits on the curb, alone. Before I notice her, I notice the blue plastic trash bags that surround her, filled to capacity with bottles and cans. She takes a bite of a sandwich, closes her eyes, and lets the sun shine on her face. Maybe she’s thinking about her sandwich. Maybe she’s thinking about nothing at all. But I hope she has a sense that there’s a better time ahead, when the work she’s doing will be recognized. A time when she will feel like this vast metropolis, which is currently engulfing her, has got her back.  ❖

Native New Yorker Ali Smith is a photographer and writer whose work, focused on women’s lives, human rights issues, and the environment, has appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, the Guardian, and others. Her most recent book is Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives.

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