There was a small article in the magazine section of the April 10, 2016 New York Times, which caught my attention. The title is How to Make Money Collecting Bottles and Cans, by Malia Wollan. It is here. Read it, it will make you feel good. It is an interview with Eugene Gadsden, who describes himself as a “canner”. In it, he gives good advice on how to follow his trade. Two of my favorite pearls of wisdom are the advice to find a shopping cart “that rolls smoothly and fits your stature and style”, and “In the beginning, prepare to feel ashamed, humiliated People might yell at you………..Don’t listen, hold your head up, you’re not hurting anybody, It’s honest work.” Gadsden claims in a typical night (1 a.m. to 7 a.m.) to collect on the order of 1000 containers, worth $50 or so in New York City.
One reason that it caught my attention is that it was the way I made money until I was old enough to mow lawns. I had my chores to do, but my parents encouraged me to also earn money to buy necessities such as candy and comic books. Since I lived in the country, there was no garbage service, and in those days (1940’s or so) , not much waste. Food left overs were fed to the cats and dogs, organic garbage went into the grove to be plowed in, bent nails and wire were straightened, cans were either used as is, or flattened for various purposes, and bottles and jars became repositories for small objects or preserves.
Items that could not be used that were flammable were burnt, and anything that was left could be put into the town dump, which was simply an unused ten acre plot. But there was one exception.
In those times, people would throw trash out of car windows, and the population was low enough and the prevailing wind strong enough that it would disappear over time. The one exception was glass bottles. Since roads were narrow, and trees close to the edge, many of them would end up under the nearest trees. But there were also bottles discarded by the orange picking crews, and people such as my father, who were always out patrolling their crops. At that time many bottles were recycled, and often by kids such as me. The economics were attractive to us, although less so to the adults who threw them away. One of the phenomenal marketing stories is that of Coca Cola. The company sold the syrup to bottlers, soda fountains, etc., and they wanted to sell as much as they could. In order to do this they convinced their customers to sell the drink (the syrup and soda water) for five cents a glass (or bottle). This lasted from 1886 to 1959 – some 70 years. The results are apparent today in the presence of the drink all over the world. But the bottles were rather fancy (photo at the left), and heavy, since they were meant to be re-used (the best type of re-cycling). There was therefore a two cent deposit on each.
In most states, there is still a deposit on many bottles, but it is so small in comparison to the cost of the drink (often still 2 cents, or 5 cents), that many people toss their used bottles into the trash can, or in enlightened areas, the re-cycling bin. But two cents was a hot deal to a kid in the 40’s, since it would buy a candy bar, or one fifth of a comic book.
So I hunted bottles and gave them to my mother, who would take them to the grocery store, and bring the cash back to me. The bottles would then go back to the bottling plant in San Bernardino, be washed and steam cleaned, filled, capped, and sent out into the world again. So I made what seemed to be lots of money collecting bottles, the bottling company got them back, and the grove (and those of all our neighbors who did not have kids) stayed clean. I was a young Eugene Gadsden.
I now live in an enlightened area that puts much effort into recycling various products, and it is somewhat successful. But we have three bins, one for yard waste, one for recycled plastics, paper, and metal, and one for garbage. They are emptied into giant trucks each week. The trucks have large automatic arms that pick up the bins, empty them into the truck, and then bang them a few times to make sure that they are empty before returning them to the ground. In the process, they make a lot of noise and exhaust fumes, and block traffic. Not too long ago there were humans with smaller trucks who emptied the bins, but they have been replaced by these large mechanical monsters. There is still a driver, but that too will probably go in a few years. How about autonomous garbage trucks? And they make a separate pass to pick up each bin, thereby competing with the leaf blowers during the day,
And of course, re-cyclable material still ends up in the garbage can, plastic in the paper section of the appropriate bin, etcetera. The result is a noisier, less complete, and more costly way of getting rid of trash than bribing kids to take at least some of it to the grocery store. That approach is good enough to get quite a few adults to take their aluminum cans in, which is good, because aluminum is a most re-cyclable material.
In my coke bottle days, the deposit was two sevenths of the buying price. I just bought a bottle of tomato juice that cost $4.50. Two sevenths of that would be about $1.30. For that I would have definitely taken the bottle somewhere, or even re-sorted my bottles. But I just tossed it into our re-cycle bin, and since it was probably non-biodegradable plastic, and different plastics don’t like to be mixed, it will probably end up living forever in a landfill.