A Job is Still a Job
The sound of clinking glass and aluminum billows over the brightly painted shipping containers at the corner of McKibbin Street and Bushwick Avenue. A stunning burst of color and cacophony, bags of green, yellow, blue, and red are stacked into the sky, sometimes flying through the air, tossed into bins even higher. Warm, multilingual greetings and brisk instructions mingle with the crackling music of a small radio, occasionally overpowered by the roar of nearby trains. Bags, boxes, and crates fill—methodically passed between skillful hands—as Sure We Can performs its daily rhythm.
Thousands of dollars cover the streets of New York City; thousands more fill oceans, landfills, and garbage bins. Five cents at a time, bottles and cans pile up in alleyways, spilling abundantly onto sidewalks and into gutters, everywhere. With tender care, these precious resources are dutifully gathered by the community of Sure We Can, a collective of canners (or “waste pickers”) exchanging recyclables for cash deposits through the New York Bottle Bill.
WATCH / Canners reflect on the community and camaraderie of Sure We Can
Rosa and her husband first began collecting and redeeming recyclables to save money for their toddler son, filling his piggybank with the five cents they received for each bottle and can. They would collect in the evenings, leaving home at 7 p.m., and returning by midnight. On nights without childcare, they’d bring the baby along, carrying him on their backs as they walked the city streets for hours. Back then, they ended each night at the supermarket where they could deposit their collections for cash through the redemption machines at the store entrance. That’s when Rosa realized this is a job.
“Of course, it's in the garbage,” she says, “but it's a job for anyone. It is a huge help.”
At the suggestion of a passerby one night, Rosa sought out Sure We Can, the only nonprofit redemption center in all of New York. There, she met Ana Martinez de Luco, Sure We Can’s founder alongside many other canners who had formed a supportive community and vibrant redemption center. Rosa continued canning at Sure We Can for several years until she joined the staff in 2019.
Compared to other redemption centers, Sure We Can is unique in the way that it is community-led and canner-centered. For canners willing to do the careful work of sorting recyclables by type, size, and brand, Sure We Can offers an additional one cent per sorted piece – 20% more than any other center. In addition, the Sure We Can community organizes a small clothing depot, a shared garden, commissions murals and art collaborations, and innovates to meet the needs of the community as various challenges arise. During Covid, for example, Sure We Can distributed masks, sanitizer, and food. They coordinated access to vaccines, and anything they could to help those who were struggling.
“Another thing that is important,” says Rosa, “is that there are many places where you go, and they are rude when you go trying to sell. They mistreat you. I don't think it should be like that. We are all the same. We go around picking through the garbage, but it's a job like any other.”
After many hours collecting, the recyclers are received by Rosa with a smile and wholehearted welcome. This is her signature, she says. She deliberately shows every recycler kindness, warmth, and respect, because she knows what they’ve likely endured during their workday or at other redemption centers. “I always laugh, make jokes, often I start to sing,” she says, “Sometimes we have coffee in the office, and I share it with them. I make them feel good because I know what it feels like to be treated badly.”
Now, the toddler son she once carried while recycling at night is a sophomore in high school and has grown up seeing the value in what most people don’t. “He says that though people mistreat us, we clean the city, we help the environment,” she says, beaming with modest pride knowing he’s right.
The Count is Up
The environmental benefit of canners’ work is real – measurable and immediate.
“Sure We Can canners are very cognizant of the fact that they contribute to [waste] diversion rates in our city. They pull things out of trash bags that they know would otherwise end up in a landfill,” says Christine Hegel, a Sure We Can volunteer and professor of cultural anthropology at Western Connecticut State University. “They recognize the environmental value of It; they believe in it and are committed to it for those reasons as well.”
This is what motivated Gabby Torres to join Sure We Can two years ago during her last year in college. Gabby essentially created her own major by combining environmental studies, environmental biology, and peace and conflict studies into a broader theme of Environmental Justice. “The mishandling of our waste is a problem on a global scale,” she says, “and we need to change completely the systems that we have in place.”
“Waste-picking is a solution that really works. It's a human solution that creates jobs. Meanwhile, there's a whole forgotten, overlooked, and stigmatized workforce that works every day to do the job that machines really can't. Why put all that energy in machines when we have a labor shortage problem?”
“Without us, the recyclers, everything would be garbage.”
Josefa Marin, Canner's Rep., Sure We Can
Gabby works at the front desk, taking over for Rosa in the afternoon shift, receiving canners and paying them out for their day’s work or “count.” And it’s a range – sometimes kids will come with a few bottles collected for a class project and then someone, like Lastenia, brings an entire sorted bag. “Even today, I've checked people out for 63 cents. And I'll check someone out today for over $200, sometimes over $300,” she says. “It's a huge range. There's a lot of people in the $15 - $25 range, but it really depends if you're coming weekly, if you're coming daily because everyone has their different systems. It's really a job where you're your own boss.”
While some canners are able to depend on canning for their primary livelihood, the math is difficult. “I was surprised at how much time and how little pay people are getting for this work,” says Gabby. “For the value that it has, when you look at the hours people are working to the amount they're being paid under the current bottle bill system - which hasn't been changed since it was created - they're not being paid minimum wage.” Sure We Can is currently advocating to fix this, offering two significant legislative changes: First, increase the deposit value from five cents to ten cents. Second, expand the types of containers that are redeemable for deposits.
“Especially beverage containers,” says Gabby. “That would mean juices - a lot of juices aren't covered. Wine isn't covered, liquor isn't covered.”
Like Rosa, Josefa Marin began by collecting from the streets near her home and redeeming through the machines at the supermarket. “To make $10, I had to collect about 200 units. I would go to the supermarket and exchange them myself. With $20 or $10, at that time, I could buy a package of meat. I could buy a good meal. I was going home very happy,” she says.
One day a gentleman came to speak with the canning community at Sure We Can and what he said changed Josefa’s view of the work altogether: “He said, ‘You're not just doing a job, you're also helping the environment.’” She started researching on her phone and quickly learned about all the garbage that goes into the ocean. “Right here in New York, we have a beach full of bottles. So, I thought, they are right - we are an essential part of this project because we help keep a lot of that stuff from going into the ocean, a lot of plastic, cans, bottles. Without us, the recyclers, everything would be garbage.”
This awareness and responsibility is seeping into the next generation as well, including with Josefa’s four children. While they are all adults, in college or working, they still sort recyclables and bring them home to their mother from time to time. “I have taught them that they have to classify, they have to keep what is recyclable in the recycling bin, and bring it here. Most importantly, they are not embarrassed because I am a canner.”
We know that if waste-pickers and garbage collectors suddenly stopped doing their jobs – boycotted, let’s say – then the streets would be covered in trash. Their services are essential while their treatment and pay are substandard. This inequity is a core issue at the heart of Sure We Can’s commitment to advocacy. “If waste-pickers or sanitation service workers boycotted, life would not be able to continue as it is. When you look, especially at the pandemic, at who is deemed essential and who had to continue in life-risking situations so that our society wouldn't crumble, it's working-class people that keep every single thing that we enjoy in our day-to-day around and possible. Some people just choose to be blind to the reality of who truly runs their world,” says Gabby.
So Much Money Just Lying Around
Pedro and Josefa are married and partner together in their recycling work. Pedro had delivered pizzas in his previous job but was open to change when Josefa introduced him to canning. That was more than a decade ago.
Now they work together every day. Sundays and Wednesdays they are out collecting and the other days they are sorting and counting at Sure We Can. “When I started with this, as a very young man in those years, I was afraid to touch this material. I used to say that this job was not for me, because I didn't know I had enough courage,” says Pedro.
Pedro Galicia, a canner at Sure We Can
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo
In the afternoons, he would collect in Downtown Manhattan, near Chinatown. “I would start checking the dumpsters on the corners, and I first analyzed dumpster by dumpster. Then, I would calculate how much each dumpster was giving me. I did the math - between 85 cents and $1.”
“I start calculating mentally, and I said, ‘This is too much money just lying around.’ But I thought that this job was - and I apologize to the people who listen or see this - I used to say this job was for homeless people, for people who didn't like to work. That was always my point of view, but I never thought about myself. Today I am one of those who do this job. Thanks to that, I am still here in this country. I survived because of this job. It could help anyone who wants to get ahead.”
To earn the extra one cent that Sure We Can offers for sorting the recyclables, Pedro and Josefa set up several huge plastic bags and start separating their haul by brand and company: Poland Springs, Coca-Cola, Corona, Budweiser, Canada Dry, PepsiCo, sparkling water, and a few select juice companies.
“Each bag has different amounts and it must be recounted. For example, all the 12-ounce ones, that's 240 a bag. The 16-ounces, the can, that's 192 pieces. The 20-ounce is 120 pieces; that's the can and the plastic alike,” he explains.
“It’s a job,” Pedro says. “At one point I looked at like, ‘Wow. This is a small business, like a deli or a restaurant, where you buy in large quantities and sell in smaller portions.’ That’s how it is.”
Over the past several years, Pedro and Josefa have made friends and built relationships with various owners and managers of residential buildings. They don’t go dumpster-hunting anymore like in the early days.
Now, Pedro enjoys sharing what he’s learned with newer canners who come from many different backgrounds, often speak different languages than him, and have mixed levels of experience with recycling work. “Many people who come did not do this work before. They come with the spirit of wanting to learn, and then they stare at us as if they’re going to ask questions. I’m always going to those people and asking, ‘Do you need help?’ or asking them, ‘Hi, how are you?’ or ‘What do you need? You need something?’”
Josefa continues, “A significant difference here at Sure We Can is that there are food donations, and sometimes it is not necessary to buy lunch. They offer you tea or a coffee in cold weather. In hot weather, they give us fresh water. They treat us well, better than other places. During the pandemic, they give us masks, they give us products to disinfect our hands, they provide everything. The other centers don’t offer any of that. No one is interested in the ‘lateros’ – they just don’t care.”
“Sure We Can is like a second home for many of us,” she says.
An Economy of Scale and Purpose
René remembers when Sure We Can was born. It was the fall of 2007 in Manhattan and recyclers were selling as much as they could collect, earning four cents per piece from a buyer on 33rd Street. Ana Martinez de Luco, a nun from Spain who had moved to New York City to care for the poor, took an interest in the work and recognized the recyclers were not earning the full value of the deposit. So, in the interest of recycling, the environment, and helping vulnerable people, Ana partnered with a few folks, including co-founder Eugene Gadsden and canners like René, to start Sure We Can on 29th Street. They were able to pay the full redemption value to canners and create space for them to sort the items as well, earning that additional penny per piece.
“Most of the people that were there were homeless, just like me,” says René. They would work collecting cans through the night then find a place to sleep during the day. “I found myself having to work with whatever I could find. I saw cans and plastics and that, for me, was a new beginning – to recycle. In one day, I was already selling about $20. The next day, another $30. When the week was over, and I saw in my pocket it's already $200 or $300, little by little. You become like, ‘This is a job.’”
At one point, back in the early 2010s, René says it wasn’t hard to make $140-$150 per day in Manhattan. “There were times I loaded up to 80 cartons of pure glass in a single cart,” he says. “It was a weight, but it was worth it. It was a resource, it was money.” Concerts at Radio City would yield $300 in just two hours, René remembers, given all the beer and soda cans consumed. “Easy money,” he says. “You have to take advantage of it.”
René often collected from the bars, clubs, theaters, and concert venues in and around Times Square. “I remember one St. Patrick's Day I made like $750 in one night. $750! It was quite a haul,” he laughs. But those hauls became fewer and farther between once the buyers and redemption centers were pushed out of Manhattan. Sure We Can had to vacate its space in 2014 and move to its current home in Brooklyn at the northwest corner of the Bushwick neighborhood.
As Gabby said, canners at Sure We Can might average about $50-$150 per day, though it varies person-to-person, day-to-day, depending in large part on the weather, happenings in the city, how long they work, and whether they have a cart to carry the load. René is no longer canning, rather supporting other canners and advocating for them as a Board Member. He also puts his mechanic skills to use, fixing the forklift when it needs maintenance and building creative things to serve the community. One year, he engineered a compost-turning bicycle out of scraps that were lying around: “You just get on it and pedal so that the compost can fall, creating pure soft soil for the plants.” The school kids, when they come for field trips, love it.
All canners are industrious and have learned to see value where most people don’t - Lastenia is no exception. Lastenia began recycling in 2012. She had previously worked as a seamstress and a cleaner, but those jobs were no longer paying the bills, so she went in search of something else. “My daughter loved collecting the plastics we had at home,” she says. “When we went to the supermarket, there used to be much recycling. I don't know if it was because they wouldn’t pick it up, but there was always a lot. My daughter would pick it up in the cart and put it in the machines. Sometimes she would get $4 or $3 and she would use it to get gum. I would always tell her, ‘Don't be grabbing that out of the garbage,’ and she would say, ‘No, mommy, but there's five cents.’”
This is how Lastenia began - redeeming at the machines at the supermarket like Rosa, Pedro, and Josefa, but soon she learned of Sure We Can and she’s been there ever since. “When I went to the office, I met Ana, and she told me how to do the work. I was like, ‘No, with five cents, I'm not going to make anything.’ And she said, ‘Here, when people dedicate to it, they make it. We are here to help you,’ she said. She was the one who motivated me. She gave me the strength to continue working."
During those early years, Lastenia’s daughter - even at just 8 years old - understood the value of the work and kept encouraging her mother. “She told me every day, ‘No, Mommy, we have to go get the bottles.’ We began to see where they used to take them out, on Thursdays, in some streets close to where we live. She would say, ‘Mommy, today is Thursday. We have to go - it's the big day.’ She would take me to pick up all the bottles, and she would find a lot,” Lastenia smiles.
“There were times I loaded up to 80 cartons of pure glass in a single cart,” he says. “It was a weight, but it was worth it. It was a resource, it was money.”
Rene DelCarmen, Sorters Rep., Sure We Can
Her rhythm has changed over the years as she’s built relationships with a couple of bars and clubs to collect their recyclables at the end of each night. She spends two days a week collecting in the streets and picks up from the clubs every night at 3 a.m., usually a 30–40-minute walk. The other days she spends sorting it all by type and brand, then redeeming the bags as she completes them.
“The other workers, thank God, gave me a hand; they let me know which companies the bottles belonged to. That's how I got used to coming here. Every day has been for me as a real workday. I work seven days a week. On weekends my daughter and my husband help me. The other days I’m working by myself.”
Lastenia rents a large storage space at the entrance of Sure We Can where she keeps her collection of partially full bags of bottles and cans yet to be redeemed. “If I finish, the bag comes out; if not, it comes out the next day. That's how this job is,” she says. A ‘complete’ bag of plastic water bottles, for example, needs to contain 144 bottles, like Pedro said. If she only has 80 or 100 then she’ll store the bag at Sure We Can overnight and complete it once she’s collected the full amount.
The days are long and the work is very physical. There have been many moments that Lastenia has wanted to quit. “Sometimes I'd put together like $10 after I've walked for five hours. I was like, ‘There's nothing. I'm not going to do this anymore.’ And my daughter would say, ‘No, Mommy, tomorrow you'll find more, you'll see.’”
And she was right. Eventually, Lastenia learned to go through the bars and began making friends. Now she has a clientele, businesses that rely on her to take care of their recycling on a weekly basis. And her storage unit is very, very full.
One Million Men's Trash is...a Problem
Bottle Bills (or “container deposit laws”) are the reason that cans and bottles are stamped with deposit values in the first place. Only ten states have a Bottle Bill: New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Iowa, Oregon, California, and Hawaii. In Maine, 91% of all beverage containers sold are redeemable for five cents or 15 cents (there, wine and liquor bottles carry a premium) and 84% of containers are redeemed – keeping them out of landfills, waterways, and wilderness. In New York, 78% of all beverage containers sold are redeemable and, even in 2020, 64% were in fact redeemed.
Under the Bottle Bill in New York, producers pay 8.5 cents per container when redeemed - that’s five cents to the consumer or redeemer and 3.5 cents to redemption centers in order to run their facilities. That 3.5 cents is what Sure We Can has historically used to pay its rent, salaries, and general operating expenses. And this is where the one cent is pulled from to pay for the sorting work.
The canners at Sure We Can are advocating with the City Council and state government to increase the deposit value from five cents to ten cents - similar to Oregon. While it seems like it’d be a windfall for canners though, not everyone is on board.
“Many agree, but others do not,” says Rosa. “Others say that it should stay just as it is – five cents, which is practically nothing – because people will throw it away, but when it’s worth 10 cents they will start keeping it.” That’s the fear.
“Waste - the stuff that's on the curb in New York City – belongs to the city. It's our waste. And we should reckon with it. We should feel the burden of having to take care of it.”
Ryan Castalia, Executive Director, Sure We Can
Ryan Castalia, who became Executive Director of Sure We Can in 2020, has been a strong supporter of the increase in deposit values: “The five cent deposit is way out of date and canners don't earn nearly enough to really support their lives. That’s a basic economic thing,” he says. A much deeper conviction drives the work, too, a sense of civic responsibility and respect for our roles in our communities. “Waste - the stuff that's on the curb in New York City – belongs to the city. It's our waste. And we should reckon with it. We should feel the burden of having to take care of it,” says Ryan. This is a growing worldwide ethos.
To coordinate with other groups and allies on policy issues like the Bottle Bill, Sure We Can has become part of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, including recycling groups from five different continents. “There are about 150 organizations of waste pickers around the globe – in India, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Argentina, and others. We share ideas and coordinate participation in projects and global meetings about environmental issues, about recycling issues and so forth,” says Christine.
For the past four years, Christine has been working with Sure We Can staff and canners to advocate for canners’ rights to work and earn a living. She and many others have testified at hearings of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee and before the Brooklyn Solid Waste Advisory Board. Christine also serves as liaison between Sure We Can and an alliance of North American canner organizations, as well as with the Global Alliance.
Together with these other groups, Sure We Can recently helped draft a constitution that will enable the Global Alliance to be recognized by the International Labor Organization – an important step in formalizing the recycling economy and creating safer standards and protections for workers providing essential services.
“There's a lot further to go,” says Ryan, “but we are seeing this wonderful situation where our capacities and the needs and opportunities are sort of aligning, and we're actually able to participate on a new level in what we hope will be broad and really transformative policy and institutional change.”
“I think of canners as a green army out there in this space of consumers' lazy behavior,” says Christine. “We're just chucking things in the trash and in the recycling because we're too lazy to redeem our own cans and bottles. So, canners are going in, and they're doing this sort of magical, transformative work, where they're sort of revaluing this thing that was tossed so carelessly.”
Can We Fix It?
“Since its founding, the spirit of Sure We Can was always to offer a place for people who experienced incredibly divided, isolated, arduous lifestyle aspects to find belonging, companionship, compassion, community, shared experience - all these sorts of things that are really elemental to life that a lot of people take for granted,” says Ryan.
“So, that spirit that was so essential to the founding of the organization has really continued throughout its life. As far as where we prioritize our programming, our time, it's really all about helping canners feel like there's a space for them where they belong and where they're going to be treated fairly with care and compassion. Where they're going to know people's names or people are going to know their names. People are going to be happy to see them. Their birthdays are going to get celebrated. They're going to have opportunities to fight for what they believe in. They're going to have opportunities earn income, to introduce the community to their children, what have you,” says Ryan.
“My aim or what I hope is Sure We Can's aim more broadly is to say there is dignity in the canners who have themselves kind of been discarded on the social level.”
Ryan Castalia, Executive Director, Sure We Can
If people understood the value that recyclers bring to the environment, to neighborhood beautification, and to the economic vitality of cities, perhaps they would be less inclined to hurl abuse at recyclers when seeing them picking through garbage cans and street litter.
“They would no longer mistreat us, they would no longer yell at us, they would no longer throw water at us, they would no longer have that attitude when you are collecting your recycling, people keep staring at us. They would know that we're helping,” says Josefa.
“My aim or what I hope is Sure We Can's aim more broadly is to say there is dignity in the canners who have themselves kind of been discarded on the social level,” says Ryan. “They have dignity. They do work. It's not like anything needs to be given to them. It just needs to be recognized what they're already doing. I think this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue that denies dignity, both to people and to materials is - I don't think I'm saying anything new by saying - it's the source of the problem.”
“Let's hope it will be better for the environment. That's the intention, and what we're looking at, that solving the environmental system that we have, it's complicated, but I think little by little, we’re bringing life to life,” says René.