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How one woman in New York City makes ends meet by collecting cans

NEW YORK — Good sneakers, sturdy gloves, and a strong grocery cart.

Those are the essentials of Chicago Crosby’s job. She’s a canner, someone who collects cans and bottles off the street and redeems them for 5 cents apiece.

“This is New York,” she says. “There are all sorts of ways to make money.”

Crosby has been canning since 2012. She is in her 50s, but won’t specify her age. “I’m a lady. You understand that,” she says, laughing.

“Usually, every day I have, like, maybe about four to five of these hanging on this cart one place or another,” she says, referring to multiple bags of cans and bottles. A full cart can be worth about $60.

This way of life is physically demanding, often requiring the canner to push heavy carts long distances, sometimes through extreme weather. It also has safety concerns, as picking through the trash can lead to injuries from broken glass or exposure to dangerous waste.

According to Ana Martínez de Luco, the co-founder of Sure We Can, a Brooklyn redemption center, canners are often low-income people. Many are retired or have a disability benefit they are trying to supplement.

“It is just a community of people who usually felt excluded in many ways… having a very hard time,” she says.

Ten states including New York have “bottle bills” that require refundable deposits on cans and bottles. They are meant as a financial incentive to encourage recycling.

Under laws like these, the customer pays an extra tax for a bottle or can at the store. Canners then pick up discarded cans and take them to a redemption center. The redemption center sells the can back to the original distributor, getting that tax back and an additional handling fee.

Anyone can pick up cans. In New York City — widely considered one of the most expensive cities in America — the deposit value of a can has remained 5 cents since 1982. Federal legislation that would increase the refundable deposit to 10 cents nationwide was announced on February 11 by US Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and US Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) as part of a plan to address the plastic waste crisis.

But bottle bills have faced opposition from the beverage industry over cost concerns, and only one such law has been passed since 1987.

Crosby says canning ‘saved me’

Crosby used to work in the fashion industry, but then her mother got sick. She was forced to choose between her mother and her job, causing her financial situation to become dire.

“Rather than jumping off of a building or ending up in the East River, I decided that I’ve got a daughter, I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to even think that way,” she says. “Let me find some other way to live.”

Initially, Crosby was embarrassed and tried to hide her job from neighbors. But as time went on, she became more comfortable and ended up developing many relationships through canning. About 40 people hold their recycling specifically for her to pick up.

She estimates she makes between $8,000 and $10,000 a year doing this.

“That keeps a roof over my head and food in my stomach,” says Crosby, who lives in public housing and also tutors and does other odd jobs.

“I think about what I have. It’s still a lot more than a lot of them have out here,” she says. “I have a great daughter. I have a lot of things.”

Crosby says her daughter works for Amazon and lives in New Jersey, where she’s working on her MBA.

“The easiest part is going out there and getting all the stuff,” Crosby says. “The hard part about it is… all the separation and the sorting and putting it away.”

Crosby brings her cans to Sure We Can, founded by Martínez de Luco and Eugene Gadsden in 2007. They say they collected more than 11 million pieces for recycling in 2018.

Gadsden was a canner for 35 years and was homeless for part of that time. Martinez de Luco is a nun who advocates for policies that benefit canners, estimating 10,000 are in New York City.

Some cans and bottles for milk products, wine and liquor are not accepted at redemption centers.

In January 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed expanding the criteria, to “combat litter, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment for future generations.”

But there has been opposition from city government officials because this would allow the city’s recycling processor to raise its rates. During a hearing with state lawmakers in October 2019, New York City sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia said that the expansion targets the more valuable materials, such as metals and “good” plastics, so taking those bottles and cans away from the curb takes away that revenue.

Martínez de Luco sees an expansion differently. “The more, the better, and the better we’ll be recycling. We have a lot of people lobbying against it… but we are really hopeful.”

Cities with bottle bills recycle about 36% more of their bottles and cans than those without, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

“The New York State Bottle Bill captures more than 5 billion beverage containers each year averaging around 250,000 tons of plastic, glass, and aluminum that is recycled,” says the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“I’m doing something beneficial on a global level,” Crosby says. “So, you needn’t feel embarrassed or afraid for me.”

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