Rummaging For A Living

After watching Redemption, an Oscar-nominated HBO documentary on New York’s “canners,” Nicola Twilley considers state cash incentives for recycling, known as Bottle Bills:

Various studies have shown that they do increase recycling rates dramatically: the United States’ overall beverage container recycling rate is estimated at thirty-three percent, while states with container deposit laws have an average rate of seventy percent. As watching a documentary like Redemption makes clear, however, a lot of this extra recycling and sorting is not being done by the consumers of canned or bottled beverages; instead, the state has outsourced its acts of environmental virtue, at far below minimum wage ($2.50 an hour at best, by my rough calculations), to some of its most marginalised populations.

Financial incentives to recycle bottles and cans don’t always work this way: in Germany, my friends and hosts have always been religious about returning bottles to the shop to claim their Pfand,” and I, who have never pursued a single cent of redemption value in California or New York, have happily followed their lead. Of course, in Germany, the standard deposit amount is €0.25, which is quite a bit more than a nickel.

Finn Arne Jørgensen notes how little has changed in the US:

 As early as 1953, Vermont introduced a bottle bill banning non-refillable bottles, but the law lasted only four years due to heavy lobbying from the beer industry. In 1971, Oregon implemented the first bottle bill requiring a deposit. This deposit was five cents, just like it is today. How many other prices have remained the same over 42 years? Vermont followed in 1973, and Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, and New York had followed by the early 1980s. A number of proposed bottle bills in other states had been struck down by industry opposition. The beverage industry fought the new bottle bills tooth and claw, seeing them as a “direct and politically motivated infringement on the free market and a threat to profits,” as geographer Matthew Gandy wrote in Recycling and the Politics of Urban Waste.

Co-director Jon Alpert reveals what he learned from following canners around – upending his expectations:

I think some of the stereotypes that were upturned for me, and are upturned in the film, is that I thought most people collecting bottles and cans were going to homeless, wrestling with mental illness or drug addiction, or that kind of archetype of a bum. But the truth and the reality, is that in this economy these are working New Yorkers. They’re the marginalized working poor. There’s a lot of ink being spilled and breath being spent on the middle class, in political conversations right now and in newspaper columns, but nobody is talking about the large population below the middle class. These are the people who are living on the absolute edge of society. What impressed me was that they’re not asking for a hand out and they’re not looking for anybody to give them anything. They want to work.