On a hot summer day, the sound of clanging aluminum soda cans and Don Omar’s 2009 reggaeton hit “Salió El Sol” fills the sweltering air at Sure We Can, a non-profit outdoor redemption center in Williamsburg. Two-story tall edifices of boxed and bagged cans and bottles stretch toward the blue skies, towering over the people that sort. Large faces graffitied on the sides of industrial shipping containers peer out over endless stacks of cans that will soon be sent off for recycling. The canners themselves work in the shade of an overhead shelter. Though most of them are older immigrants, their hands move with an impressive dexterity as they sift through huge piles of cans, tossing them into bags divided by company and bottle type.
An estimated 10,000 canners — roughly the equivalent of the city’s Department of Sanitation workforce — make a living every day in the streets. Canning work takes on a variety of methods, and most people stick to a certain route. Canners interact with each other in many ways, from turf battles to building years-long friendships over the many hours spent sorting together. Some have cars and homes, while others rely on shopping carts to store and transport their collections.
In the outer boroughs, there are state-licensed redemption centers that buy cans and resell them to beverage companies. In Manhattan, for-profit pick-up trucks buy directly from canners on the street. Others exchange their cans through vending machines outside supermarkets, though these impose a $12-per-day limit and are often jammed.
In 1983, the New York State Returnable Container Act placed a five-cent deposit on cans for specific beverages, including carbonated soft drinks, water and beer. Since then, the deposit value hasn’t risen. In 2021, a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would raise the deposit value to 10 cents and increase the categories of containers covered, but it remains stalled.
Sure We Can is the only non-profit redemption center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was founded by canners Ana Martinez de Luco, a radical street nun, and Eugene Gadsden in 2007. It serves 1,200 individuals a year, distributing about $800,000 into the community annually, reports Sure We Can. A constant flow of canners visit the center to sort and deposit cans and bottles. We spoke with people there (excluding Linda) to get a sense of what it means to be New York City canner.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
7 years canning; manager at Sure We Can
I was struggling with depression and an alcohol addiction, so I couldn’t work regularly anymore. There arrived a day when I didn’t have any work and didn’t have any money, and one of the only ways I could live was by canning.
I would sell everything on 33rd St. between 11th and 12th. We were next to a big parking lot; it was a very empty area. A pickup truck would come from Brooklyn. We were all there: Some people were homeless, some people had homes, but all of us were canners — all different people with different problems. There would be 40 to 50 of us at once. People had psychological problems, there were lots of fights, and in came the police, in came the ambulances. So the pickup spot no longer exists; now it’s NYPD parking.
My route was between Times Square and 49th St., 52nd, 48th, 60th, 42nd and 1st Ave., where there were lots of restaurants. Radio City had the most; you could get $200 or $300 in one night. You could find a six-wheeled USPS cart, and you fix it up, and 80 boxfulls of cans could fit on one of those pushcarts. I was sometimes pushing three or four carts at the same time. It was really heavy, but you’re happy because it’s money.
When I stopped drinking, I started saving for an apartment. All the money I had been spending on alcohol started going to rent.
Sure We Can was born with me. Ana Martinez de Luco and I knew each other from the canning world. I was always a mechanic in my official jobs. Ana was initially working in Manhattan, and whenever she had a problem with a forklift or any mechanical problems, she would call me. Our alliance became stronger. Now I work as a manager here, and I deal with the transfer of cans to the companies that buy them.
15 years canning; retired
People shouldn’t look at us with a bad eye, like we’re walking around begging — like what? We’re recycling! They look at us like we’re miserable. Those of us who you see in the street, we’re cleaning the streets!
I do it for my exercise. I walk around and make a little mon- ey. I worked in a supermarket and a meat shop, but I’ve been retired for about two years. In the afternoon, after getting out of work, I used to go out in the streets [to can]. I would go back home first, eat something, go out to the street around 3 p.m. and come back home by 7 p.m. But Saturday and Sunday, I spent almost completely in the street.
Now I’m old; I do it when I can.
7 years canning; retired
What we’re doing is good for the environment. It helps us to be able to buy necessities. I don’t work [anymore]. I get my little check each month but it’s not much, and it’s not enough.
12 years canning; retired; friends with Guillerma
I haven’t been employed for 15 years. That’s when I arrived here [from Venezuela], and I couldn’t get any work.
The supers give me bottles. I have three supers. I was around here and a guy said to me, “Hey, morena, do you collect bottles?” and I said, “Yes!” He said, “Go to this place on 86th, we’ll save bottles for you there,” and then I found two more supers, because they saw that I was working already at the one building, and the three buildings are right next to each other.
I don’t like the glass bottles. They’re very heavy. When I have ten boxes of glass bottles on this cart, I can’t. And you don’t make any more on them. Still five cents. They don’t want to raise the value. But I’m working more and making less.
It’s very heavy; it’s really bad for your body. But I don’t have anything else, [and] I’m not just gonna sit around. I have to do it. I have two sons. The money I gain with this is for the family. And I also send money to children with cancer, to help them. I sell these [cans, bottles] and I’ll send $10, $20 to the kids.
I worked through the whole pandemic. People told me, morena, morena, Don’t go into the street, but I went out and I never got sick.
6 months canning
Some people might have an issue with you going through their bags. It makes sense; it can feel a bit invasive, and you’re complete strangers. I’ll try to explain that I’m not doing anything bad. Other times, you let them talk and you do what you gotta do. People think you won’t go through the trouble of tidying things up, they think you just come and make a mess. But I try not to.
If I had a choice, it’s probably not the number one thing I would want to do. But everything happens for a reason and currently, this is what I have to deal with. Canning has some potential, but it’s not what I see myself doing in the long run. I got a few exams I want to pass, like the [Cisco Certified Network Associate]. I want to learn Spanish and get certification for that. I got other things I want to do, some personal projects. Once I get where I’m planning to go, will I stop [canning]? I don’t know.
13 years canning; retired; started “Cans for Comic Relief,”a charity for children that has raised over $25,000.
I was on a night shift at the airport, so my shift would be ending around the time that TSA closed. So I put on the gloves and I started digging. It got to a point where I was leaving every night with these two big plastic bags. There was an all-night Key Food on Flatbush, and I would clear them out [at the bottle-exchange machine] at 3 A.M.
One time, I was at the machine there, and all of a sudden, something hits my head, and I see a plastic bottle. I turn around, and some guy’s laughing. He assumed I was homeless and because of that, he could treat me with contempt.