To date, no census of canners in New York state or New York City has been conducted. Much of what is known about canners comes from the canners themselves. Although their activity is made possible by a state law, canning lacks clear regulation. Canners have labored in that gray area for over 30 years, tracing unexpected routes and motley social networks that deal in the trash that most New Yorkers discard and forget.
What is the Bottle Bill?
The Returnable Container Act, known as the Bottle Bill, is a statewide law was enacted in 1982 in response to an outcry over the mass of glass and plastic containers carpeting New York City's public spaces.

Legislators decided that by charging 5 cent deposit per container redeemable by anyone, New Yorkers would be incentivized to pick up after themselves. New York wasn't the first state to enact a bottle bill. There are 10 states and Guam that have bottle bills with deposits ranging from 2 to 15 cents as of 2018.

In the thirty years since New York's Bottle Bill was enacted, the state has diverted thousands of tons of recyclables into recycling facilities at no cost to local governments, used hundreds of millions of dollars in uncollected refunds to support city and state agencies, and in effect established a work-based welfare system for disadvantaged New Yorkers, known as canners.
Who are canners?
Canners are those who supplement their income and pensions picking up cans and bottles on city streets for a redeemable value. Some of them make a living and pay a rent with the money earned canning. A small number of canners are people struggling with addiction, trying to scrape together just enough to buy a sandwich or survive.

When the Bottle Bill first came into effect, the population of canners was much less diverse than it is now. Homeless blacks and veterans were among the first to start canning. Today, the engines of the Bottle Bill continue to be the city's disadvantaged: Latin Americans and Chinese immigrants, the elderly, people who lost or quit their jobs, and college students all can for many reasons.
How many canners are in NYC?
The short answer is that we don't know. There is no census of canners in NYC, to date. Anecdotal evidence from redemption center owners interviewed for this project estimated there are around 10,000 canners. And in an article written a few years ago, AFP also put the number at around 10,000, based on a study we were unable to verify.
Why do New Yorkers can?
There is a spectrum of reasons why New Yorkers can. The common reasons are unemployment, ineligibility to work due to old age, legal status, or injury. For many elderly canners it is a means of contributing to their households and staying active. For others it's a form of protest. It is a way to make an honest living without feeling trapped in dead-end and low-wage jobs. Sometimes it's people looking for a quick buck.

The one constant is that canners tend to be people who are struggling enough to see opportunity where most New Yorkers see trash.
How much do canners make?
Some canners make a living picking up cans and bottles. A Mexican couple featured in this project makes $40,000 a year. They work seven days a week and have a car, where they store their collection instead of going back and forth to a redemption center whenever their cart is full. A canner who works hard and with the right connections, but who has only a cart and no motor vehicle, may make about $10,000 a year. At 5 cents a container, it is not easy work. Even those who make $10 a week must find 200 cans to earn that amount.
How does canning happen?
Canning happens in every corner of the city. From sidewalks to residential buildings to roadsides and parks, canners are collecting glass and plastic recyclables at all hours of the day. The most common forms of canning are along predetermined routes that each canner knows and respects. These routes are often decided based on two qualities: place and relationship. Canners seek places with high concentrations of recyclables and relationships with people who give them access to private properties, like building superintendents. The most successful canners are those who work with the support of family, neighbors, and other members of their community.
Where do canners redeem their cans?
Canning is not only collecting, however. It involves hours of sorting by company and redeeming. After canners comb city streets for recyclable containers, they take their wares to redemption locations.

Those with a couple of bags worth of redeemables may take them to supermarkets with reverse vending machines, which are infamous for being jammed. Others try at big-brand convenience stores, like Duane Reade. Canners who collect hundreds of cans and bottles every day push their overflowing carts to redemption centers scattered across every borough except Manhattan.
What is a redemption center?
Redemption centers are state-licensed facilities where redeemable containers are exchanged for a 5-cent deposit. It's where canners get paid. The redemption centers, in turn, make money by returning the containers to the bottlers for a 5-cent reimbursement plus a 3.5-cent handling fee for the sorting.

But redemption centers are increasingly running on a deficit due to the inconsistency with which large beverage companies and third-party carters make pickups. Some of the state's largest redemption centers report having hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollected recyclables - meaning tons and tons of recyclable glass - and plasticware.

As of 2017, there are over 140 registered redemption centers in the state, according to data requested from the state's Department of Environmental Conversation.

Is canning legal in NYC?
The legality of canning is a thorny matter. The Department of Sanitation of New York claims that once trash touches the curb, it becomes city property. Local Law 56 empowers the DSNY to issue penalties to waste pickers for theft under the so-called "scavenger law." Advocates and researchers question the law's enforcement.

After the enactment of Local Law 56, the Department of Sanitation impounded dozens of vehicles and issued tens of thousands of dollars in fines on a weekly basis, according to a paper authored in 2012 by the former Director of Recycling for the DSNY, Robert Lange. He wrote that scavenging - canning included - constitutes theft of city property. Ads published online criminalized people who riffle through city trash, calling them "thieves" and encouraged New Yorkers to report "recyclables theft" on a government portal. Lange wrote that "scavengers" are stealing recycling's future, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Advocates and researchers claim that the city's criminalization of canning not only contradicts the Bottle Bill's purpose, but also contradicts grassroots initiatives supported by the city that encourage citizens to do exactly what Lange claimed is illegal: scavenge.

While the legality of canning remains unsettled, the economic and environmental benefits are clear. Over the past three decades, canning and other Bottle Bill activity have had significant impacts on the health of the state, according to state and city agencies.
What is the impact of canning for the state?
Available data at the state level tells a positive story. Up until late 2017, the Department of Sanitation's website reported that the Bottle Bill reduces litter by 70 percent, saves more than 52 million barrels of oil, and eliminates 200,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas each year. The Department of Environmental Conservation of New York State calls it a "tremendous success" that that has helped create a "cleaner and healthier New York."

According to data gathered from the New York State Department of Taxation, in 2016 the Bottle Bill generated over $100 million dollars that went to public programs and agencies at no cost to local governments. Bottle Bill advocates claim that writ large these bills tend to have a net positive effect on the city's waste management system.

The DSNY has since redesigned their website and removed all mention of the Bottle Bill's impacts.
Who are the major stakeholders?
At the most basic level, the Bottle Bill has five major stakeholders. From top to bottom they are: the state, large beverage companies and bottlers, third-party carters, redemption centers, and canners. All these stakeholders are the architecture of the New York State Bottle Bill. And at its base are the canners, who labor day and night for cents on the bottle.

The Department of Sanitation of New York City rebuilt their website and removed all information regarding the Bottle Bill. In Bill DeBlasio's landmark sustainability policy to reduce the city's waste to 0 percent by 2030, OneNYC, there is no mention of the Bottle Bill, redemption centers, or canners. There is no indication that the Bottle Bill - despite its reported environmental benefits - has a place in the Mayor's vision for a green future.

Andrew R. Calderon contributed to this page.