A reader writes:
This is such a fascinating topic that I highly recommend the 2010 documentary Scrappers [trailer above]. These guys and gals with their trucks piled high are ubiquitous in Chicago, roving the alleyway. They too seem very much like the hardworking folks Jon Alpert found in NYC. It especially highlights how the global economic slowdown’s effect on the price of basic commodities is felt at such an immediate and local level.
As a Southern transplant to upstate New York, I was never used to recycling. (We could recycle in the city where I was raised of course, but it wasn’t encouraged – financially or socially – like it is here.) My habits changed immensely after moving north, and I am better off for it. But as a relatively well-off family with busy lifestyles, including jobs, children and pets, we never seem to get around to depositing our own bottles.
One night, after my husband had removed the recycling to the curb, we heard a noise out front of our house.
We live “in the country”, on a dead-end road, so this was odd. My husband took the dog to investigate and found an embarrassed man and his family digging through our recycling. They apologized and drove off.
We talked a lot about what had transpired that evening and how lucky we were to not worry about that 5 cents per bottle, but how – if we had to provide for our family – we wouldn’t hesitate to do what that man was doing in the cold of winter, with his family by his side. My husband was mortified for any feeling of condescension he might have felt at first blush. It was an enlightening experience for the both of us, particularly as relatively young and recent ascenders out of the working-class families in which we had been raised.
From then on, we’ve separated our bottles in a box for that family, setting it by the rest of the recycling, so he doesn’t have to feel the indignity of digging through empty baby food jars and yogurt containers for 5 cents/bottle. Some moments can really open your eyes to your own privilege.
A reader from the city:
I learned about returning bottles from drinking in South America. And then in college, I started organizing with my friends to make sure we gathered up our beer bottles and brought them back on the next beer run. In NYC, however, when I started trying to do this, the stores would refuse to accept them unless they had sold basically the precise bottles.
They are actually correct on the legal obligation; they don’t have to accept them. The rule is: “Dealers must refund the deposit on all containers of the same type (brand, size, shape, color, and composition) they sell for off-premises consumption, regardless of where the container was originally purchased”. But the stores I have dealt with treat brand as specific to the label (i.e. if the store didn’t stock the precise beer I was returning, they would refuse the bottles, even if they sold beers from the same manufacturer/brewery). So … although 5 cents a bottle is ridiculously small to incentivize me to bring them back to the store, I might do it myself just out of sense of responsibility, if I could without figuring out where I bought every beer.
And from way up North:
Here in Ontario we buy wine and spirits at government-run Liquor Stores and buy beers at the Beer Store, which is owned by the big breweries. When we put in a deposit on wine and spirits containers, it was decided to make the Beer Store the return place, since they had been doing returns since Moses was a baby. Since I hardly drink beer, that means a special trip to the Beer Store to get a nickel for my wine bottle. Frankly, it ain’t worth it. Nor is it worth it for a huge number of wine drinkers. I put the bottles in my recycling bin, which theoretically means that they get recycled anyway, and the deposit is forfeited to the Beer/Liquor Store consortium.
Enter the Redemptorists (apologies to the Catholic religious order of that name) who walk the neighbourhoods the day before recycling pick-up, dive into the blue boxes, and carry the containers to the beer store for a nickel a jar. At first I was offended by strangers coming onto the front porch to rummage through the bin. When I realized that they were not taking from me – I had no intention of taking the bottles to the Beer Store – but were taking from the Booze Monopoly Power, I thought it was a very swell way to transfer some wealth to the down-and-outers.