It is said that New York is a city for only the very rich or the very poor. As the cost of living rises, thousands of people learn to see treasures where the majority sees trash. They call themselves canners, or lateros, or hui shou ren depending on their origin. They make a living redeeming empty cans and bottles for five cents a piece, thanks to a 1982 State law commonly referred to as the Bottle Bill.

There is no accurate data on the activity of canning, but people involved in the sector claim that more than 10,000 people pick up empty cans on the streets of New York to make some money. We mapped the experience of eight of them.

Francesca Berardi, an Italian journalist based in New York, has done the field research – tracking trajectories, manual collection of data, oral history interviews, and casual canning. Grga Basic, a cartographer originally from Croatia, has worked on the map concept and digital visualizations. The project was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Columbia and Stanford universities, and the invaluable guidance of Marguerite Holloway, Professor of science journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
by Francesca Berardi
The first canner I talked to was Pierre. Raised in the Bronx, he’s a musician who loves boxing. Describing to me how becoming a canner had an impact on his life, he used an image that was hard to believe. He said that while on a date with an extremely beautiful woman, what he found irresistible were cans in trash bins along the streets of Manhattan. His hands were itching, but he tried not to embarrass his date, and therefore he refrained from picking them up. I’ll never know whether he was romanticizing his story, but after being with canners for months it sounds absolutely plausible.

I devoted eight months of research to create a map of New York City seen through the experience of canners. Between July 2017 and February 2018, my life was divided between the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and a redemption center in Bushwick, the concrete heart of Brooklyn. Redemption centers are places were canners take whatever they collect in order to redeem more items than what they would be able to do using the often clogged machines that can be found outside supermarkets.

New York has about 40 of these redemption centers, none of them in Manhattan. It’s not possible to get an exact number, because they open and close from one day to the next, in empty lots, warehouses and garages. I worked in a center that’s an exception. It’s a not-for-profit called Sure We Can, funded 10 years ago by Ana de Luco, a nun of Basque origins who calls herself a “street nun,” and Eugene Gadsen, a homeless man from South Carolina known as “The King of Cans.” Without the openness of the people who work at Sure We Can, including the current and former directors – Malvin Acevedo and Agustina Besada - I’d never have been able to finalize this project.

I went canning on a dozen different occasions, and I spent entire days at Sure We Can. Since then, I’ve begun to see New York as an endless strip mine of treasures. When I see the transparent bags full of cans on the street, with a quick look I figure what they’re worth. So out in front of a brownstone in Harlem I can easily “see” fifteen dollars. My hands don’t itch the way Pierre’s do, but now I understand that if someone is struggling enough to be able to transform the notion of trash into a resource, then the city is transformed. New trajectories open up, new relationships are established and a space that’s conventionally called “informal” takes shapes. And there you see freedom.

Working with Grga Basic, a cartographer at Columbia University's Center for Spatial Research, I traced the trajectories of eight canners, two of whom work as a couple. I used the GPS on my smartphone and a simple tracking app, manually collecting the quantitative and qualitative data on notebooks. Grga then translated my notes into maps as precise as they are disorienting. The itineraries are placed on a blank background, where the geographical references we’re used to —street names, parks, rivers— disappear. There are two main reasons for this deliberate abstraction. The first is to protect the canners’ privacy. Each one of them moves along specific routes, at specific times, with precise objectives, and competition is high. Moreover, canners are protective of the relationships they create, for example with the superintendents of buildings, which are fundamental for the success of their work. Indicating exactly where there is a super who is ready to open a basement in exchange of a bag of candies, could raise controversies. Supers obviously don’t only get a small gift, but a service that otherwise they would have to provide themselves, that of going through and separating the residents’ waste.

The second reason has to do with Grga’s area of expertise, critical cartography, based on the notion that the map is a subjective representation of the territory. Conventional maps express political and economic power, and therefore it’s important to recognize their nature and reveal their limits. Mapping the experience of people who live on the geographical and social margins of the city, is a way to challenge this authority, and an opportunity to reflect on our notion and relationship with waste. We are used to the idea that the act of throwing away an object means its disappearance. Instead it continues to live in the city before being definitively transported to faraway places. Some say China. Others, less emphatically, speak of New Jersey. In Grga’s visualization, itineraries unfold while revealing the collected data. The design has been projected in collaboration with Isabel Meirelles, information designer and professor at OCAD University in Toronto. Her meticulous examination and her passion for the subject were fundamental for the creation of this website.

Collecting data on an informal economy can be somewhat daunting. Sure We Can has a rigorous method to register and file its data, in a sector where there’s a general lack of transparency. Before beginning the actual project with the Brown Institute, I worked at Sure We Can Saturday mornings for more than a year, to understand how the data was being handled (I worked as a volunteer, although they knew from the very beginning I was a journalist conducting my research.) Canners at Sure We Can can make more than 5 cents a piece. If they deliver the material sorted and ready for the distributors, they also receive a small percentage of the 3.5 cents paid for the separation, known as the handling fee. That’s unusual, but Sure We Can’s greatest aim is to create a community: receiving a few additional cents is an incentive for people to stay on and separate the bottles and cans together with the other canners.

There was still the challenge of collecting data during single expeditions. The first time I went out with only a pen and notebook, pretending to be able to keep track of how many bottles and cans were collected in every corner or bin. Impossible. No canner would ever try to count what they collect. Their unit of measurement is the plastic bag. Half full, not too heavy, about three dollars; packed full, rather heavy, as many as five. I was lucky to be able to discuss the data aspect with Giorgia Lupi, a guru of data humanism, the human approach to small data. “People don’t relate to perfection, they relate to humanity,” she told me more than once. Like Grga helped me in questioning official maps, Giorgia opened my eyes to the imperfect nature of the data. I began to understand that everything can be translated into data, even an emotion, and that the final goal of data collection and visualization is reaching a deeper knowledge of oneself, both as individuals and as collectivity. For this website, Giorgia ideated and designed the data portraits on the home page.

The theme of the imperfect also returned when reflecting on the use of the technique of oral history in interviewing the canners. I enrolled in a workshop entitled Oral History for Social Change, that was led by Nicki Pombier Berger, who also became a fundamental interlocutor for this project. “Everyone has a voice,” is Nicki’s motto. It’s only that we do not always know how to listen, or what to listen for. Practicing oral history means learning new ways of listening as well as and opening your questions to unexpected answers. I discussed with Nicki how to adapt the rigorous process of oral history to the journalist ethic, especially when it comes to “wrong” statements. The idea is that it’s less important whether or not the person being interviewed reports the exact chronicle of an episode in his or her life, because even a “wrong” story is dense in meaning. This is why it is not important whether or not Pierre, while walking alongside a beautiful woman, really felt more attracted to a can. Whether he experienced it or imagined it, the image says a lot about him and the canning community.

During these eight months I took hundreds of photos and videos with a smartphone. I saw them as “visual notes” because I never intended to publish them. I realized that with an actual camera in my hand I’d have had to give up working intensely with some of the canners, those who didn’t want their story or condition to be linked to a recognizable face. So I decided that I would lean upon the art of illustration to express the experiences of the canners. Thanks to the expertise and help of Alon Chitayat, an illustrator specializing in hand drawing on digital platforms, I managed to see how to represent such an eclectic community making the most of the characters of the single individuals, but also leaving space to the imagination. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and through the use of apps like ProCreate, the practice becomes rather easy. Like the smartphones that has made everyone an amateur photographer, the iPad with a digital pen can let everyone draw.

The audio stories were produced in collaboration with journalist Gilda Di Carli. The lack of data about canning has been investigated separately by data journalist Andrew R. Calderon, who generously shared his findings with us.

Transcriptions and translations of Spanish interviews were done by oral historian Fernanda Espinosa, and the interview to a Chinese canner translated by PhD candidate in Communications at Columbia University Emilie Yu Marine Xie.

The website has been developed by a JavaScript wizard, Jeevan Farias. The audio files were edited and mixed by sound engineer Jacopo Penzo.

Special thanks to Michael Krisch from the Brown Institute for his help and dedication.
If you have questions about the project or would like to get in touch, please reach out to [email protected]. We look forward to hearing from you.