By YuliYa Palianok
A nickel, today is an unthinkable wage for work, yet for individuals below the poverty line, 5 cents is a sufficient basis for a full time job. Most supermarkets have vending machines where people can refund plastic bottles for 5 cents each. This refund value is part of New York State’s Bottle Bill, which encourages people to recycle by providing a small monetary incentive. But in fact, those with low income, or those with no income at all, accept 5 cents per bottle as a wage for full time bottle collecting. Interviewed by The New York Times, Mr. Culpepper, 35, was “laid off two years ago from food preparation at LaGuardia Airport.” He has “turned scavenging into a full-time job paying $400 most weeks, more on holidays.” Scavenging for recyclable plastics involves the same concerns as any full-time position. Those who depend on bottles and cans for a living are very aware of their competition, best collection areas and times, and most profitable refund centers. Culpepper, for example, travels 45 minutes by foot to deposit his bottles and cans at the Thrifty Redemption Center for an additional 1 cent per bottle.
Thrifty stands out from other redemption centers in that it has no limit on daily deposits. Under the Bottle Bill, recycle deposit initiators are required to pay at least 5 cents, but are allowed to add to the refund rate. According to the New York State Department of Conservation: “retailers and redemption centers are reimbursed the deposit plus a 3.5-cent handling fee by the distributor or the deposit initiator for each empty beverage container returned.” In this case, Thrifty Redemption Center might have a business incentive to offer the extra cent in order to attract more deposits and collect higher fees. In order to receive reimbursements, retailers must sort deposits and return them to separate distributors. The extra penny Thrifty Redemption Center offers to the collectors is a huge incentive for an unemployed who brings 7-9 sorted bags with 100 deposits in each to redeem for cash. Bottle and can collecting is not just a New York City phenomenon; it is common and competitive in major cities in the US and the world.
In San Francisco, for example, “the homeless earn the equivalent of up to minimum wage by picking up discarded cans. Seniors and the unemployed do the same to supplement their social security or welfare benefits,” according to Priceonomics article “Making a Living Collecting Cans.” Many of the collectors have been displaced from jobs during the recession and continue to struggle along with the recovering economy. Francis, a San Francisco resident displaced by the economic downturn whose “daily income of $40” speaks about some of the tradeoffs of collecting to Alex Mayyasi, a Priceonomics reporter. The incentive to travel into distant neighborhoods that have plenty of discarded recyclables is deterred by long commutes around the hilly San Fran landscape. Shopping carts often ease the loads. However, walking around with a shopping cart presents its own tradeoff: the risk of recyclables confiscation by cops on the basis of shopping cart theft.
Competition is yet another concern in the scavenging market. Organized bottle and can collecting often pushes individuals out of wealthier neighborhoods and diminishes scavengers’ income. Police and newspapers identify those who steal recyclables in bulk as mosquito fleets. These organized thieves drive up to homes in groups and dump as many recyclables as possible into pickup trucks then, leave quickly. Mosquito fleets form territories around profitable areas and leave individual scavengers empty-handed. At the same time as the poor scrape up recyclables, a growing number of middle class people place more value on them. Those who recycle and sort trash outside of their homes are often eligible for tax deductions. Thus, scavenging around homes that participate in recycling becomes illegal. Some cities are now trying to reverse the incentives for scavengers to collect recyclables. In some areas, the shutting down of strategic deposit centers becomes a heated issue.
Bottle scavenging may be something that we notice on the streets of New York, but few of us imagine that plastic and metal litter is a basis of an evolving scavenging market. Those who own homes and benefit from tax deductions may be more aware of the monetary value of recyclables. Those who live below the poverty line, depend the most on used and discarded containers. Penny-on-the-bottle incentives motivate the needy to collect strategically. As strategies develop, competition arises and the market becomes subject to innovation and regulation. Will more centers be inclined to offer bigger reimbursements like Thrifty Redemption Center and encourage larger-scale scavenging? Or, will new recycling programs with tax-deductions and stricter policing deter collectors’ efforts?