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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)|
|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.