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The New Yorkers who turn trash into treasure
On the streets and digging through trash with New Yorkers who make their living half-a-penny at a time
A woman who makes a living by collecting bottles and cans pushes her evening's collection into Sure We Can in Brooklyn. 
A woman who makes a living by collecting bottles and cans pushes her evening's collection into Sure We Can in Brooklyn.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Paula, a 72-year-old Dominican woman pushing a blue collapsible shopping cart, turns the corner onto Moore Street in Bushwick. She takes in Roberta's, the popular pizzeria and restaurant where Brooklynites are known to wait upward of two hours for pine-nut-and-Brussels-sprout-topped pies. It's the Saturday before Halloween, and just outside two young women are selling pumpkins; in Roberta's garden, two guys are carving them. Paula turns to the restaurant's trash bins. She sifts through the garbage bags inside, but finds nothing.

She zigzags across the street to a dumpster outside a residential building in a former warehouse. The dumpster is largely empty except for a promising-looking white plastic bag tantalizingly out of reach. Paula, a retired home attendant who is five-foot-nine and solidly built, can't reach it, even on her tiptoes. She scans the sidewalk, and finds a seven- or eight-foot-long wooden stick across the street. As she heads back to the dumpster, stick in hand, a resident emerges from the building and tosses another garbage bag in.

(More from Narratively: A night out with New York's dumpster divers)

With her newfound tool, Paula fishes both bags out and opens one. Corona, Yuengling, Corona, Yuengling, Corona, Beck's, Corona, Brooklyn lager. Into her cart they go. A water bottle with water still in it. She opens it to briefly rinse off the black grease that was smeared all over the inside of the bag and now covers her hands. One crushed can. She rubs the inside of the plastic bag against the remaining bottles to try to remove the grease. A Lagunitas Pilsner, two Blue Point ales. A tall guy in jeans and a black hoodie and a girl wearing cat-eye glasses exit the building. "You're going to look retarded," the woman says to her companion as they walk away — perhaps to brunch; it's about that time.

Paula searches through a dumpster in Bushwick. (Narratively/Jessica Bal)

Paula rips a small hole in the second bag and retrieves a seltzer bottle, which she crushes, an aluminum lager can, another Poland Spring water bottle and a Seagram's ginger ale. She uses the remaining water to again try to wash the grease off her hands. It's futile.

The young man and woman have turned back, apparently having left something behind. Just before they enter the building, the woman, in the middle of a train of thought, says, "Which is also ridiculous because his skin is so perfect for color tattoos."

Paula returns the stick to the other side of the street and spies a Budweiser can on the ground. In her cart it goes. Total earned: 90 cents. If she manages to sort them all by distributor, she'll earn a dollar and two-and-a-half cents.

(More from Narratively: Culture warriors)

New Yorkers are uncomfortable with the city's waste. Hence the NIMBY attitude toward a riverside recycling plant planned for Gansevoort Street at Pier 52 in Manhattan, and a waste transfer station green-lit for the Upper East Side. Hence the official, practically sterilized title for garbage collectors: Sanitation Worker. And hence the anonymity of the city's humblest of waste workers — those who collect our discarded cans and bottles to make their living one nickel at a time.

So-called "canners" are a crucial link in a process in which most of us play an unconscious part. When you buy a beverage, you pay a five-cent deposit for the bottle — the same amount that the store paid to the distributor. After you finish your drink, whoever returns the bottle or can to the distributor gets the nickel deposit refunded. Groups that organize bulk quantities to return to the distributors can earn an extra three-and-a-half-cent handling fee per container.

Canners trudge through the city collecting shopping carts brimming with bottles. The ambitious ones outfit their carts with six broomsticks sticking up along the perimeter to hold garbage bags that can carry even more freight. Certain canners, especially the Chinese, may plod along with a stick across their shoulder and garbage bags dangling from the front and the back. Others collect their goods in folding grocery carts as if on a shopping excursion or a routine trip to the laundry.

Maria Angelica sorts bottles at the Sure We Can facility (Narratively/Michael Premo)

Largely seen as benign scavengers or, by some, as environmental foot soldiers who boost the recycling rate and pick up litter, New York's canners are mostly non-English-speaking elderly immigrants, according to Sure We Can, a non-profit bottle redemption center in Bushwick. Many canners are Chinese. Others are Spanish-speaking, from the Caribbean, Mexico or Central or South America. Among the English speakers, almost all are black; virtually none are white. And contrary to what many assume, most canners are not homeless. While a majority collect cans because they need the money, others do it simply out of boredom, as an excuse to get out of the house.

But despite their diverse backgrounds, one thing ties them together: the precariousness of their livelihood. Their "work," although not expressly illegal, is not really a job either, and police sometimes harass canners for sifting through trash. Most are hesitant to talk about what they do. Some, who receive Social Security payments, fear their extra income could imperil their government checks. Others don't speak English, or simply don't want to talk about their situations. Almost all of them prefer to remain anonymous.

(More from Narratively: The view from the top)

Walking along the median of Pike Street in Chinatown on a Saturday morning in September, a Chinese man and woman who appear to be in their 70s charge by, pushing two large grocery carts. The man's is about a third full of flattened cardboard boxes and half-a-dozen satiny paper shopping bags with handles; the woman's cart sports six upright broomstick poles. Though they have no cans or bottles yet, their carts are a dead giveaway. The woman leads the way, alternately ignoring or barking at me as I try to speak with her through an interpreter.

The man, trailing behind, speaks for his hostile partner: "Don't follow me! Don't follow me!" he shouts in Cantonese. Before running off to keep up with her, he gives us one tidbit: He and his canner partner drop their recyclables under the Manhattan Bridge, at Monroe Street and Pike. At the next intersection the woman turns and glares at me.

The sidewalk at Monroe and Pike is wide — six big, smooth concrete squares across. 9 canners — all Chinese — are spread out on each side of the sidewalk, one group next to the bridge anchorage and the other near the curb. It's so roomy that passersby (mostly white) can still walk through, but they hurry as though not wanting to disturb the work. In the adjacent Coleman Playground, a group of multiethnic, 20-something guys wearing baseball caps with wide, flat brims zoom one way, then the other, on skateboards.

A 50-ish Chinese woman with a bowl cut who appears to be in charge — notebook, pen, suspicious attitude — immediately shoos us away and hides her notebook as I ask questions through the interpreter. "So many reporters come and ask me the same questions you just did. And when I tell them to go away, they leave immediately, not like you! You need to cooperate better!" she says, adding, "And don't take my picture." Behind her, a woman shakes out the contents of a white plastic garbage bag with red drawstrings. She squats and immediately begins putting the bottles and cans back into the garbage bag one by one, apparently counting.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week,Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.

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