Managing recycled waste in major cities was already an extremely difficult task before the outbreak of Covid-19, and while most residents know that it is being taken care of, they do not fully understand how. More times than not, when throwing away trash, people are unsure over what goes in each bin and know even less about where their trash ends up. However, despite the public’s uncertainty around recycling, there are people behind the scenes that ensure it gets done as much as possible. Even when the trash gets all mixed up in the bins on the streets of New York, there are people who make it their responsibility to sift through and collect all the plastic and aluminum that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. These people are called canners, and they collect cans and bottles throughout New York City and take them to redemption centers to earn money. However, many of these canners take this a step further by working at the redemption centers and sorting their finds by material type and distributor. Even more, they often help load up the trucks that distributors send to collect the recycled material. An example of one of these redemption centers is Sure We Can, the only non-profit center in all of New York that operates out of a lot in North Brooklyn. They accept aluminum cans and plastic bottles from anyone willing to donate, while also creating a community that the canners of New York City can rely on.
While there has been media coverage focused on how DSNY Sanitation workers have continued to work throughout the entirety of the current pandemic, there has been no attention to canning or how the act of recycling has been affected by the outbreak of Covid-19. Canning is a very informal form of recycling and canners are often homeless or immigrants. Because of this, the media has rarely mentioned recycling and waste management in their reporting of Covid-19 and the few reports have all focused on much more known forms of recycling. Canners and redemption centers have also been through difficult and unprecedented situations due to the pandemic, yet they have not received any attention.
When the coronavirus outbreak began to appear as a real threat to American citizens, I started to see how so many things around me were changing. Sure We Can, just like every other organization across the country, was forced to make some drastic changes. They were forced to close during the last week of March due to health concerns, but they reopened during the second week of April with revised policies to enforce social distancing. The job that they were doing for the city of New York was seen as essential, which is why they were able to stay open. However, the work was also essential for the canners to be able to stay on their feet and stay safe throughout New York City’s shelter in place order. But what exactly does recycling look like during a global pandemic? I wanted to understand how the acts of quarantining and social distancing were influencing not only the work done at Sure We Can but recycling throughout the city as a whole.
I had the opportunity to interview Ryan Castalia, the programs and communications manager of Wure We Can, and Ana de Luco, the cofounder of the organization and the spirit of the community that she has built from the ground up. First, I was curious to know how the act of social distancing has had an impact on the work that they do on a day to day basis. They both emphasized how the need to limit the number of people that can enter Sure We Can at one time as well as the amount of time that they can stay there has led to some major uncertainties. Ryan stressed that, for the time being, they are not auditing the cans and bottles that have been pre-sorted off-site. Because of this, the organization is certain that undercounting is taking place and that they are paying the canners more than what they should be making. Ana also pointed out that it was difficult to keep the canners from interacting with each other, so that became quite tense at times.
However, despite these challenges, Ana told me, “We needed to stay open because this is an essential job. The city is still recycling, but also because this is for [the canners’] survival.” An important element of Sure We Can is their community of canners and the safe haven that they have created for them to do their work. The organization accepts cans from anyone, regardless of background, and many of the canners are homeless or speak little to no English, but Sure We Can is a place that always makes them feel welcome. That being said, canning is often the only option for them, and the only way that they can make money, so Ana’s claim that canning is essential for canners’ survival really is the case.
Sure We Can, like everyone during these difficult times, has definitely been forced to make changes. The foundation of redemption centers throughout New York is the Bottle Bill. There are multiple states in the United States that have this law, also knows as a container deposit law, that requires a minimum refundable deposit on beverage containers and also requires distributors to pick up these cans and bottles in order to reuse the materials. This is how canners make their money and redemption centers help facilitate this transaction. However, due to the outbreak of Covid-19, more than half of the states–New York included–with a Bottle Bill have suspended the enforcement of these requirements. To understand what consequences this decision would have on both recycling and redemption centers, I wanted to first look at how this would impact Sure We Can. Ryan noted that one major issue is that distributors will still come and pick up bottles voluntarily, but they are no longer obliged to because the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) who would normally ensure distributors are frequently picking up from redemption centers are no longer doing so. What this means for redemption centers throughout the city is that their futures have become quite precarious due to the fact that distributors could just stop coming altogether. This creates major uncertainty for the future of recycling through redemption centers as well.
The Bottle Bill is not the only policy that has been changed because of the outbreak. State and local governments throughout the country are being pressured to reverse some environmentally beneficial policies such as single-use plastic bag fees or bans. The plastic companies argue that reusable bags put people at a higher risk because they are not as sanitary as plastic bags. These are two examples of how companies have been able to take advantage of the current situation through what Naomi Klein calls Corona capitalism. Some corporations are able to find ways to take advantage of the fact that the economy is still valued over the environment. The country as a whole has been making progress in recent years towards flushing out single-use plastics through regulations and recycling policies, but momentum is being lost now that many of these regulations have been paused due to the pandemic.
Ryan and Ana were able to speak to Sure We Can’s observations of the recent changes in the environmental movement. They both told me that, the number of cans and bottles that they have been able to collect in recent months is only 60 percent of what they were returning to distributors at the same time last year. However, Ana emphasized that this was not because of a decrease in what canners are able to bring in. In fact, since many other redemption centers in the city have closed down completely during quarantine, canners have been forced to hold onto a lot of what they collect. Ryan explained to me that the loss comes from a major decrease in efficiency due to the social distancing measures that they have taken. Only a small number of canners are now allowed into Sure We Can and there is a time limit to how long they can stay. This means they simply cannot count all of their cans and bottles, nor do they have the space to do so. He continued to say, “Canners are still canning. The issue is more a matter of business infrastructure support for processing the materials they bring in.”
So what does this mean for recycling throughout the city as a whole? Sure We Can has seen a significant decrease in what they have been able to process and Ana told me that many other redemption centers have closed. Bottles and cans are still being picked up, but canners do not have a place that can accommodate them without running into efficiency issues. Sanitation employees continue to pick up trash and recycling from residential buildings and businesses, so recycling is still being done. However, the canners that were once able to earn money off of this resource are the ones that have taken a hit.
As I mentioned before, Sure We Can takes a lot of pride in the community that they have created for canners, so I wanted to ask Ana if she felt that this aspect of the organization has been diminished at all. Social distancing has definitely changed the way that operations run at Sure We Can. Before the outbreak, there was always around twenty people sorting cans and conversing with each other on a normal day at the lot. The energy was always lively and you could hear multiple languages all around you. Ana spoke to this and said that, for the sake of everyone’s health, this can no longer happen while we remain in this current situation. The organization is only open for a few hours a day now and interactions are limited, but Ana has not lost hope that the community of Sure We Can will be able to return to what it was just a few months ago.
In times of disaster or uncertainty, it is often the case that the concept of vulnerability is constructed by those with the power to make some more vulnerable than others. Often the ones that become more vulnerable are members of racialized, poor, or immigrant communities. Since many canners can be classified as such, Ana was able to speak to the vulnerability of the Sure We Can community in terms of both the likeliness of contracting the virus and also to tremendous socioeconomic losses. Surprisingly, her answer was a simple yes and no. Many canners live in very crowded spaces where they are constantly in close proximity to other people. In a time where it is safer to distance ourselves from others, they would be much safer outside of their homes. She went on to say that for many, being a canner is either their only source of income or a form of compensated income for them. These canners really have no other choice in terms of what else to do to continue to make any money.
But Ana also said no. She explained to me that these people know how to survive better than anyone else. These are not necessarily unprecedented times for them. Because these people have been systemically forced to be more vulnerable to many different types of pressures, they have constantly faced adversity. They have lost many jobs in the past, but continue to find new ways to get back up. They can survive on the bare minimum and they have been for years now. She stressed, “They know how to survive. I mean much better than maybe you or middle-class families in the city.” They have faced disparity before because of the way that they have been made vulnerable in the past. It should not be a comfortable and widely accepted fact that certain groups of people must be made more vulnerable than others, but Ana would like to believe that since they have been forced through this before, they will know how to make it out again. Ana’s answer was not what I expected her to say, but even surrounded by this flood of uncertainty for what the future could bring, she remains confident. “As long as there are cans and bottles on the street, they will survive.”