How much can you make from cans & bottles?

Dealing with Coke can pay off

If you’ve ever spent your working hours navigating a gray cubicle maze or strangling yourself with clothing hangars at a retail job, just about anything seems like a valid career alternative. Even, we’ll admit to daydreaming, joining those guys who pick bottles and cans out of your apartment trash every morning. Fresh air! Exercise! The thrill of the hunt! Maybe it’s a little messy, but we had to look at dead bodies at our last newspaper job, and you can’t turn corpses into nickels. Walking to work one day, the two of us wondered whether those humble trash pickers are really laughing their way back to McMansions in Jersey. So we decided to find out for ourselves.

Armed with the only granny cart we could find, a handful of empty trash bags and a few hours to kill, we hit the streets of Boerum Hill at 11 a.m. on a hot Thursday in September. The first few buildings on our block alone suggested a fruitful harvest, despite the disgusted leers from neighbors and passersby who seemed to be, judging by their faces, slightly reviled. Or maybe it was just their concern that trash picking had become the latest breaking trend among the young white males of Brooklyn, right up there with Dumpster diving and boat shoes. About a half-dozen residents had separated out their  redeemables into plastic bags and hung them from fences.

Three blocks down, the easy access to trash cans in the front yards of the Boerum Hill brownstones and apartment buildings was proving to be a boon: Our cart was filling up quickly. It doesn’t take long to become an expert at what to take: Any water bottles count (and you drink a lot of them, Brooklyn), as do sparkling waters and energy drinks—basically anything that isn’t 100 percent juice. Boerum Hill had a lot of Bud Light on this particular day, and a lot of wine bottles, which were no good to us (see the full list of redeemables and other official info).

Cheer up, Conal. This hard work will make it rain nickels.

Turning up toward Gowanus, we hit a mineral reserve of malt beverage bottles and scooped them into the cart. Collecting cans and bottles, you get a supernatural ability for spotting your bounty—in the street, on top of corner waste baskets, even at the bottom of someone’s bin in the mess of last night’s dinner. Bottles start to look like scattered nickels in the trash, making the whole thing like collecting coins in a Super Mario game: Sure, I don’t need the coin all the way at the bottom of the pit near the sea of hot lava. But I want it.

The only direct competition we encountered came from an elderly lady on Bergen St. who paused in her trash-digging as we passed by with our lush cart and followed us with a narrow-eyed leer that penetrated the cloud of stale beer and hot sugar water. As we kept moving down the block, it became clear she had beaten us to the punch on this side of the street. We were tempted to yell ”Don’t worry! We’re just tourists!” to assure her we weren’t a threat to her income, but we didn’t want to scare her even more.

If you’re the kind of person who keeps a Purell in your pocket, this is like three levels of hell distilled into one afternoon. We spilled hot, stale beer on ourselves, handled wet cigarette butts, and touched ancient mold and mysterious foodstuffs. We picked up one warm water bottle off the street and realized, yep, that’s probably pee inside. We touched goo of every consistency. Some of the pros we saw had gloves, but more were barehanded. A few pros were truly helpful, pointing us in the direction of more grocery stores when it was clear the machines at one store were busted, and informing us why some of our bottles were rejected (they have to be from New York and the labels have to be intact so the machine can scan them).

Sorting through the trash involves a great deal of patience. Maybe six houses on a block won’t have anything to claim, but the seventh house is the one who had a Diet Pepsi party the night before. By the time we were at Court St., we were ready to cash in. It had been just under an hour and we already had an overflowing cart.

Mr. Darcy builds his empire

Redemption
So what can you earn? In a best-case scenario, you can make a bit more than $5 an hour from collection to redemption (untaxed, of course). We each walked away with $2.50 from our trips, but in truth the whole enterprise was a one-man job. On the first run in September, we collected $5.60 for an hour’s work; the second run last month netted a smooth $5.25.

Collecting bottles and cans isn’t really that hard, it turns out. But trying to cash them in? That, using the technical term, is the bitch of it. Our first destination was the Fifth Avenue Key Food, where we planned to cash in the bottles in the seemingly convenient “reverse vending machines” that count your bottles for you. The aluminum and plastic machines worked fine and printed our ticket after accepting most of our bottles. But the glass machines—at this Key Food and then at three more stores within a two-mile range we dragged our booty to—were broken, or had gotten filled up quick. And there wasn’t much we could do about it.

This is the part where your hoped-for hourly wage is steadily diminished by a relentless stream of store employees who are perpetually on lunch break and are, apparently, the only people in the store’s employ who are able to fix, turn on or otherwise empty the machines.

Take Met Food in Prospect Heights. We had been waiting for about 20 minutes, along with two other guys with bags of bottles, for a clearly-full bottle machine to be emptied. Finally out onto the sidewalk walks a young guy, who pulls on his work gloves and proceeds to tell us… the machine is full. Yes, but can’t you empty it? “No. Is full.” There has be something you can do? “No. Is full.” He even opened the machine to illustrate the point that it was, indeed, full. When should we come back? “Is full.” Our second outing met with better luck: With an early start, we got a jump on the machines, so we arrived at the Fifth Ave. Key Food as soon as they opened the machines at 9 a.m.

Printouts from Key Food's recycling kiosks

Note: Even if they have broken machines or no machines at all, all stores that collect a bottle deposit are required to give you money back for any bottles and cans they sell (though they won’t be happy about it). So you can get 5 cents back for each of those Simpler Times cans at a register at Trader Joe’s, but they won’t give you anything for a PBR. This involves knowing which products belong to which store, and sorting through the sticky mess of bottles before going into the store—all actions that lower your return on investment.

The regulars
Don’t forget that this is an endeavor where the competition is very seasoned, though perhaps slower-moving. One big dude carting around two black bags nearly as large as he was said he had arrangements with different building supers to save him bags of bottles and cans.

Ronald, a regular at the Fifth Ave. Key Food wearing a Mountain Dew fleece, told us he makes three or four hauls to cash in bottles and cans a week. It’s his only source of income and he’s been doing it for 15 years. One morning this week, Ronald, who lives in the nearby Gowanus projects, had six large yard-waste bags full of recycling in two carts. He wouldn’t say exactly how much he makes, but he did say it’s enough to survive on without welfare or Medicaid. Although his collecting income allows for a steak “every now and then,” he mostly eats “pork and beans and franks.” And he’s no stranger to frustration: He can wait for hours for someone to fix broken redemption machines, and if he tries to take his haul inside the store,  he’ll be hassled or even flat-out refused. Ronald used to be more vigorous, collecting six days a week. “Then I got old,” he says. ” Old and tired.”

We also saw some great ingenuity: One impressive feat of engineering was an all-in-one bike-cart contraption (pictured), complete with baskets, bags, a place to store a trash grabber stick and even a water-bottle holder (a reusable bottle, mind you). Also, containers can’t be returned crushed or broken, so some of the veterans had homemade dowels they used to force bottles and cans back into shape.

A bike contraption, for serious bottle collectors only

Like it or not, these folks have become an important part of the New York ecosystem: New York state alone chugs through 2.5 billion bottles of water a year—enough according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, to reach the moon (where it is even more difficult to find a working Key Food). The collectors don’t exactly walk around like green-mulleted planetary superheroes, but a lot of those bottles they’re collecting come from trash cans, not recycling cans. So the bottle collectors are the only thing preventing those one-use plastic containers from eternal landfill damnation (which is the fate of about about 30 million single-use containers every day).

Glad to do our part—even if we’re not quitting our jobs any time soon. When we finished, we took the money we earned and spent it all on one $5 Porkslap at the General Greene, which is a lot to spend on beer, but at least it gave us a nickel towards our next big haul.

If you find yourself in a rough patch where those extra nickels will make a big difference, two tips: 1) Go early. While Brooklyn is big (and thirsty) enough that it produces enough bottles for everyone, getting to the stores or the redemption machines early will give you a jump on the window of time before the machines break or get filled up for the day. 2) Stick to brownstone neighborhood. Their yards provide easy access to trash cans you can pick through without trespassing too much.

And for no particularly scientific reason, here’s a chart we prepared that measures certain clutch life items in bottle collection time and effort:

DESIRED ITEM COST BOTTLES OR CANS NEEDED COLLECTION TIME
1 can Simpler Times beer (plus tax and bottle deposit) $.79 16 9 minutes
1 packet Ramen noodles $.39 8 4.5 minutes
Falafel (Sahadi’s) $3 60 33 minutes
Movie matinee (Kent Theater) $5 100 55 minutes
Colt 45 (40 oz) $2.75 55 31 minutes
1 night in NY Loft Hostel (Bushwick) $40 800 7.5 hours
1 year of Law school (Brooklyn Law) $44,000 880,000 8,148 hours (339 days)
Cigarettes $11 220 2 hours
Used bike (Schwinn, via Craigslist) $75 1,500 14 hours
iPad (16 GB) $499 9,980 92.5 hours

*Based on average earnings of two trips, 9/2 and 10/21, in a best-case scenario where redemption machines are functional.

35 Comment

  • I feel like I’ve been waiting my entire life for this article.

  • I just saw an ad by, I think, the Clean Air Council that says the plastic bottles used by Americans in one week would circle the globe 500 times if laid end-to-end. In trying (and failing) to find this video online I found this article from ABC.

    It appears it’s somewhat illegal to put collected plastic bottles in your car, as per the NYC Sanitation Department. A caveat for all you would-be bottle collectors out there: keep them in a granny cart.

  • What if you drive your bottles to Michigan in a mail truck “Seinfeld style.” How does that effect the hourly rates?

  • Naomi, I think that only works if your car is powered by Mr. Fusion the whole way.

  • Nice bit of Brokevestigative journalism. Not enough pieces of this genre.

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  • damn, i’m so glad to know i can go to law school in one year!

  • As you noted in your Gothamist comment, you guys are not a class act. What would be classy is if you went back to the neighborhoods where you collected the bottles and cans and gave the money to the people who normally work those streets. Maybe you’d actually make a human connection with one of these people that seem to be sneering at in your piece. Of course, that would require some work on your part. Nah, forget it. Enjoy your beer.

  • @Shawn Rosvold:

    Give the guys a break. They just spent hours sorting through trash to highlight how the poor and homeless make some extra income, and they DID talk to some of these people to see what it was like for them.
    In fact, I just saw that exact bike contraption filled with bags of recyclables go by on my morning jog at 6 this morning. I was so impressed, especially since these people basically do what most New Yorkers are too lazy to do: take the recycling out of the trash and put it where it belongs.
    And on one final note, in Germany where it is legal to drink on the street, they make a point to leave their glass bottles on the curb for the homeless to pick up. This is true in Belize as well, where all the beer bottles are used over and over until the label is all but worn off.

  • @Shawn. Just curious, how many bottle/can collectors do you count among your friends that you feel justified in admonishing these Brokelyn folk for their investigative work? And the authors’ snark aside, they actually did make a human connection with these people. Don’t righteously ignore the facts.

  • I’ve always wondered just how much they make! Although I’m sure the people who take the already-bagged recycling from off the street make far more per hour-I’ve always wondered though, is stealing already-bagged recyclables legal?

    Like the chart too-good stuff!

  • Shawn, for the record, neither of the writers of this story commented on Gothamist. We don’t know who did. We also gave over $8 worth of bottles and cans we collected to a man who was waiting at one of the machines. We did an experiment, posted our results, and left it at that. Please don’t make snap judgments.

  • Really interesting. I remember a very elderly Chinese lady who collected seven days a week in Sydney. Rumour had it that she had put all her kids through university. True or not, she was in really great shape. Thanks for a look at this “invisible” class of worker.

  • hands down the most awesome piece of journalism ever.

  • Excellent piece! And for all the haters who say that money should be given to the regulars, you are right… But wrong. A one day experiment is not a make or break issue.

    Will say the best message of this is simple: Separate redeemables from non-redeemables to make the lives of collectors better.

  • Interesting follow up: I ran into a guy at Trader Joe’s the other day with an entire cart full of cans and bottles to return. He pulled out his money to pay for his groceries and I told him he should just apply the bottle deposit towards his bill. He declined: “You work really hard for this. It’s just nice to hold onto it for a little while.” So even though money is fungible, he liked to have a tangible reminder of the fruits of his labor.
    He also said he makes about $4-$7 an hour depending on the day.

  • Love this piece, it made me laugh. Always wondered what they made. Near me we have guys that work in pairs and have carts with bags hanging off of it like cotton candy venders. Maybe Ill start saving my cans…extra cash for rent

  • If anything the best is to collect a certain amount of aluminum enough to fill a small size dumpster. Then bring it simply to a scrap metal yard and they will weigh it instead of sitting for three hours in front of a machine at the supermarket that spews out 5 cents a can…The best recommendation for a scrap yard is go to the largest because typically the smaller yards sell to the larger one thus give you less of a payout. If you have larger items call a scrapper(Like the show) they usually post on craigslist typically you can give it to them for free or price so they have some money in return. Any non ferrous metals can be sold to a yard. I knew a story once of a guy who got a $1000 in brass door hardware. Its a major business…

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  • Such a good article, thanks for investigating.

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  • Nice article! How bout a deeper dive into why they make it so hard for people to get their money back? Even though stores are legally required to redeem your bottle deposits, sometimes they reject you, give you attitude- yet we don’t give them attitude when they’re adding the money when we check out at the register. On principle, I want my legit deposit back that I paid for and it peeves me to have to deal with nonsense when I come back for my deposit.

  • What do the New York bottle pickers do with the bottles they find which are only redeemable in other states such as Connecticut or Maine? Do they just leave them lying or is there also a place to redeem them here in New York?

  • I had a lot of empties and was thinking of listing them on EBAY (ofcourse pick-up only)at half value to avoid the hassle of returning it but most of these people who collect the cans probably are not internet types

  • im from Jersey city and we have lots of empty meIs niral bottles and cans soda. Is it possible to sell all of these in newyork? Is anybody knows recyling center in newyork? Your response is highly appreciated. Thank you

  • this was really help full i am trying to get a horse so i need 1500 cans ill try

  • Neat article. I was baffled at how you were making twice what I make an hour, but saw that you use bicycles and carts. I collect on feet and carry everything by hand (intentionally for physical activity). I think I’m fit, but even I have limits. C:

    I also collect books (Amazon), clothing (ThredUp) and a lot of miscellaneous items (Craigslist/yard sales) that I have no trouble ultimately selling. Anything that doesn’t sell, I usually donate/give if I myself have no use for it.

    I tend to find a lot of food as well. Hell, I remember once finding a dumpster full of packages of expired snickers peanut butter squares. Made off with easily 15 packages and it was all I ate for about 2 weeks.

    If you’re handy, scrap pieces of lumber, metal and other building materials.

    Lets just say, you can scavenge everything you could possibly need to sustain life (food, clothing and shelter) and then some, given that the population of the area you’re scavenging is of a certain density, you’re willing to exert the effort. :)

  • Afer y parents are deceased,I plan to collect soda cans and bottles from garbage.Beacuse my parents wrote a will that in scarsdale ny My sister and ….. get the houses and the money.I will not be welcome in a group home so I have no choice.

  • It seems like the problems lies with the consumer yet it is an interesting way to make money. I guess there still aren’t enough jobs out there. Government assistance is frowned upon boo hoo.

  • Funny- I almost hate posting this message because I feel like im letting folks in on a secret.. You read a piece like this (not knocking it) and you walk away smirking thinking your job at bk or mcdonalds is much better.

    I live in NJ.. I don’t make the trip to ny or any other state where I can redeem cans- its illegal, but also its not necessary.. The current price of cans is about .70lb… If you break it down, typically 25-30 average soda/beer cans make a pound. Seems foolish to sell it by the pound when you can get much more with the system in NY right? Welp, that my friends is the mistake folks in NJ make. As this piece mentioned, you have to deal with quite a few hassles dealing with the machines to secure your profits? but also NY has quite a few folks ready to grab each and every can that finds its way to the ground. If your lucky enough to get in with some resteraunts or apartments you can beat a lot of folks to the punch but still- the time spent redeeming them

    Arizone ice tea.. monster drinks

  • second attempt.. hope the moderator posts this message as I feel it may help some folks. Having problems posting it however.. lets try again:

    Funny- I almost hate posting this message because I feel like im letting folks in on a secret.. You read a piece like this (not knocking it) and you walk away smirking thinking your job at bk or mcdonalds is much better.
    I live in NJ.. I don’t make the trip to ny or any other state where I can redeem cans- its illegal, but also its not necessary.. The current price of cans is about .70lb… If you break it down, typically 25-30 average soda/beer cans make a pound. Seems foolish to sell it by the pound when you can get much more with the system in NY right? Welp, that my friends is the mistake folks in NJ make. As this piece mentioned, you have to deal with quite a few hassles dealing with the machines to secure your profits? but also NY has quite a few folks ready to grab each and every can that finds its way to the ground. I spend a lot of time in the city- I have witnessed fist fights over Arizona ice tea cans..

    If your lucky enough to get in with some resteraunts or apartments you can beat a lot of folks to the punch but still- the time spent redeeming them- well, as they say, work smart…. In NJ? you have vast suburban roads- just find any local park with roads surrounding it? You can make a small fortune.. Today for example- I spent 3 hours and grabbed about 70lbs.. I average about 500lbs a week.. If the current spot price is .90? and the center is offering .70? when I walk in with 1000lbs I get about .80/.85.. To top it off? im 46 years old and in the best shape of my life.. I can easily walk 10 miles and if im bored? after a nice dinner? Ill go back out and hit another 5 miles of roads. there is no shortage- in fact, my biggest problem right now is I would love to have a partner who can cover the other side of the road.. I keep a notebook with my ‘take’ and I revisit the best areas several times.. The winter I cut my work in 1/2 because there just isn’t as many cans.. Sept/Oct/Nov? I make more then I do in the other 9 months..

    Just some advice? its not for lazy people.. Just like trading stocks looks easy? its probably the most difficult profession to handle mentally, and most people go bust thinking staying home in sweat panths and working 1-2 hours a day will net you a fortune. Only ones that make easy money on wallstreet are the slime you see on tv who front run you and cheat.. I should know- I traded stocks for over a decade, and collecting cans is much easier.. but youll walk your a** off, can sometimes be smelly? and you have to deal with a lot of people laughing at you and sometimes I do get spit at or garbage thrown at me. I get the last laugh however. We Americans are slobs- and you find a road that borders woods? or heck- if you have guts to go on highways like rt 46, or rt22? youll make a killing. I prefer the scenic roads of northern nj..

    One last thing.. I have done this for years.. even when it was as low as .20lb, and also once a while back I was getting 1.75.. I always keep a few thousand lbs in my shed.. Prices fluctuate.. Its a commodity.. One thing that has changed in the last decade? big size cans.., such as Arizona ice tea? if you go by local 7-11s or mini marts? you see a scene you only dream of.. woods filled with dozens of these cans.. The weight on these is more then double the average can.. You walk into the weeds and see dozens of dimes shining on the ground.. Yeah., I dream about those hits.. : 0

    Im getting old.. wont be doing it too much longer., and after being laughed at for years? including today in fact someone called me a ‘scu*bag’ hehehe? I figured id get a chance to return that laughter.. the joke is on the polluters.. Just be prepared to realize what a sugar/booze problem this world has- that alone is disturbing.. I always wondered who drives around with large bottles of scotch or vodka.. Youd be afraid to get behind the wheel if you see what I see each day..

    Anyone interested in some tips- id be happy to share.. popgoiuuod@gmail.com hey if your in nj? and want a job? drop me an email : ) It gets lonely spending all day walking the roads while everyone else is behind a computer screen.. gluck!

    http://www.infomine.com/investment/metal-prices/aluminum/

  • One of the largest recycling centers in Brooklyn is the Thrifty Beverages recycling center on McDonald Avenue. it’s on 990 McDonald Avenue to be precise. I keep reading how everyone is bringing their bottles back to the supermarket and putting them in the machines one by one. If you go to Thrifty Beverages they take them by the case or bag. If you need more informtion try the Thrifty Beverages recycling page at http://www.thrifty-beverages.com/recycling-bottles.php

  • Well… now I know what I’m doing for MY Sunday afternoon!

  • I prefer my current assigment as IT consultant for $100 per hour to being a lowlife dirtbag popcan bum. I always spot these deadbeats in the alley.