My Grandpa Redeemed Cans for Money. He Deserved a Raise.

When I was in the fifth grade, my grandpa took me to my school’s dumpster. “You know the Coca-Colas and water bottles that people throw out?” he asked me in Mandarin. I nodded, spotting two empty Poland Spring bottles lying on top of a nearby garbage pile. He swiftly plucked them out and stowed them away in a plastic bag. “That’s 10 cents. Your turn,” he said, smiling as I ran to another trash can. Seconds later, I emerged victorious, holding a Pepsi can over my head as if it were a trophy.

My grandpa was a canner, someone who collects recyclable containers on the street and redeems them for money. In New York State, canning is possible because of the Returnable Container Act, passed in 1982, which calls for a 5-cent deposit on glass, metal and plastic beverage containers. Though the law was meant to reduce litter and encourage recycling, it has also had the effect of offering a lifeline to some New Yorkers. A new bill that is pending in the State Legislature offers a chance for us to significantly improve the welfare of canners like my grandpa.

There are an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 canners in New York City. Many of them turn to canning because they are unable to earn a steady income for a variety of reasons — because they are homeless, unemployed or recent immigrants like my grandpa was.

It’s easy to see canning as sad and degrading. When I was in the fifth grade, I remember the looks of disgust and bewilderment on my classmates’ faces when I told them that picking through the trash was actually quite profitable. I quickly learned not to offer this observation. Nonetheless, I was raised to respect family members, especially my elders, so I was never embarrassed by the fact that my grandpa was a canner.

On the streets of New York, though, my grandpa endured scathing looks. And some of his family members looked down on him for doing work they saw as dirty and indecent.

But there’s a difference between being desperate and being pitiable. Though it’s no one’s first choice as a profession, canning offered my grandpa a chance to build a life and a family. He always took pride in his work.

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