For Collectors of Cans, A Bleak Duty

Can Collecting in the East Village from The Local East Village on Vimeo.

Every day, dozens of people line up in front of Key Food Supermarket at Fourth Street near Avenue A, waiting to redeem hundreds of tin cans for cash in the redemption machines outside. They carry their business in large plastic garbage bags and rusty shopping carts. Some of the regulars say they scrape by on their recycling income alone; others say they use it to supplement whatever other money they make by doing odd jobs.

Competition for the machines can be fierce. And sometimes, with a small number of machines and long lines of collectors, tempers flare and fights break out.

Peter, a Key Food Employee who declined to give his last name, described the latest incident.

“One lady punched another lady in the face and knocked her out cold,” he said. “And when the cop went to arrest her, she tried to punch the cop in the face.”

Sonny Hecker, a 70-year-old man who has lived across from Key Food for 33 years, has been bothered by the disturbances.

“The women fight with each other,” Mr. Hecker said. “They get very violent. They pick up a bottle in their hand and try to hit someone over the head with it. They’re very vocal, very violent, very demonstrative,” he said. “That’s an ongoing thing. That’s pretty constant.”

David Woods, a 46-year-old Harlem resident who occasionally comes to the Key Food redemption center, said that some people make decent money from the 5 cents that they’re given for each bottle and can.

“A person can make from maybe $800 to maybe $1,300 a month,” Mr. Woods said.

But collecting cans and bottles is a tough job. These men and women have to walk all over the city to collect enough to make a living. They dig in the garbage anywhere they can find treasured recyclables. Then when they are ready to cash in, they wait for hours in line — behind a large and diverse group of people, each with hundreds of cans and bottles to redeem. Not all recyclable machines accept all the cans and bottles. There is usually a $50 limit, forcing collectors to move from machine to machine.

“This is a hard job,” said 48-year-old Naeemah Muwwakil. “You got to have patience to do this.”

Jerome Williams, 66, said he began making money from redemption centers in 2000. He used to walk with his recyclables from 34th Street all the way to South Street — at least 50 blocks — to earn his cash. 
Three years ago, Mr. Williams had to cut back on can and bottle collecting to find another way to generate income because he was having health problems.

“I guess from the cold, you know, a lot of times you load your wagon and you ain’t got no place to go inside, so you got to sit out here in that cold,” Mr. Williams said. “And I guess that’s probably why my legs bother me, because I may have rheumatism.”

The pain was so intense that Mr. Williams said that he briefly stopped collecting cans and took a job at bar. “Because it’s not a lot of walking,” he said.

Mr. Williams now comes to the Key Food redemption center about once a month and earns roughly $10 to $12 each time.