# Sounds of the City

Right now  as I start this post, out on the street, the same somebody who comes by once a week is creating the clink-clink noise of bottles being sorted out of the neighborhood recycle bins.

They go back in.  The cans net \$1.57 a lb at one local recycling center, the bottles are under \$0.10 a lb.  You have to be careful sorting out the bottles to get at the cans, or the people that own the house get angry when they find another broken bottle near their driveway and they get one of the bin locks that are becoming more common in my neighborhood.

A cubic meter of aluminum is 2,700 lbs.  That’s obviously much denser than a bag of crushed cans, there’s a lot of air in there; the point is that any decent number of cans is going to be a lot bigger, in volume, than a cubic meter.  I figure you can probably get, what, thirty pounds of cans in a plastic bag, maybe?  And maybe fifteen or twenty of those bags in your car?  One of these days I have to get on the horn and call the local curbside pickup guys and ask how many cans they pull out of the average recycling bin, but it can’t be that many.  One soda can is about 15 grams.  So it takes 1,000 of them to make a kilogram and a half, which is \$3.45.  I figure the average recycling bin probably has, what?  Hm; two adults per household in my immediate area, not too many teenagers (mostly younger kids), so two cases of cans is probably a generous load for a week.

So maybe 30-40 cans, at most, per recycling bin.  Let’s call it 20, I’m feeling pessimistic tonight but the neighborhood is mostly upper middle class so beer usually comes in bottles and soda is so… gauche.  So, 50 recycling bins need to be scoured for 1,000 cans.  At about a minute or a minute and a half per can, rummaging around, plus walking to the car to unload your bag… what’s that?  Maybe an hour and a half to net 1,000 cans?  They start at about 10, if they work until 5 in the morning, that’s 7 hours.  Let’s call it seven and a half, just to jibe with the hour and a half baseline… so 5,000 cans in a night.  That’s much less than the volume problem, sorry… I’m working this out as I go.

This is not what I would call fulfilling work, a seven and a half hour shift to haul in seventeen dollars and twenty-seven cents.

And someone’s doing it.  Not just here, I have it on some credible reporting that this happens in every neighborhood in the Los Angeles basin where curbside recycling goes on.  Leaguesters from other locales can report their own mileage.

That’s an awful lot of people busting their hind end at what is essentially a full-time job (albeit one night a week, unless they run different neighborhoods with different collection times, of course).  For seventeen dollars and twenty seven cents.  If you could do that job 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, you’d be bringing home a whopping \$4,490.20.  Less expenses.  Well, it’s tax-free, so you’ve got that going for you, I guess.  I don’t know about you, gentle reader, but you couldn’t pay me \$17.27 to look at your computer.  I’d either do it for free, or charge you a hell of a lot more than that.

There are people who really get bent out of shape that someone’s running through their trash.  There are other people who get upset that those cans aren’t making it into the city recycling program, and thus they’re cutting out revenue that helps pay for the program.

I guess I find that odd.  Not necessarily wrong, or a bad way to look at the situation, or a bad way to look at the world.  Just odd.

All I can think about is seventeen dollars and twenty seven cents.

## 50 thoughts on “Sounds of the City”

1. But wait, isn’t CA one of those states that has a container deposit law? So shouldn’t each can be worth 5 cents, or bottles worth even more? (I think it’s 10 cents per bottle, no?)

So why would they do this for the stuff per pound?

Report

• And if they’re gathering cans for the sake of the 5 cent redemption, then 5000 cans becomes 25,000 cents. Or \$250. Which to be honest, isn’t a terrible haul for a single night.

Report

• Alan Scott says:

CA is 5 or 10 cents based on the size of the beverage it contains.  I wanna say the cutoff point is 24 fl oz.  But it’s different in each state.

Report

• In that case, it seems to me gathering cans would make sense.
1. They’re much lighter than bottles.
2. They’re not as fragile so they’re much easier to turn in en masse.

Report

• Kazzy says:

The only issue with that, at least in my experience, is can redemption.  Often times, you have to load cans without dents or any damage to the bar code one at a time into an automated redemption center.  If you go to the redemption centers that are hosted by commercial stores (by far the most common type of center), you are sometimes limited to redeeming only the types of cans sold there.  So if you end up with a bunch of cans of Acme brand pop, you can’t turn them in at the liquor store.  It is still probably the preferred outlet, but adds another layer or two of work.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

California law states that you only get the deposit if you exchange fewer than 50 containers of a particular type per visit (50 cans, 50 glass, and 50 plastic.) If you bring in more than that then the recycling center can do it by weight.

Report

• Kazzy says:

Really? Is there a reason for that other than to discourage these types of actions? Seems like sort of a silly rule. Especially since it might discourage folks from taking in even their own recyclables… when I do take my to the depot, I usually only do so after accumulating a lot. I’m not going to go down after every six pack.

Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Duck’s correct. I didn’t want the post to turn into a rant about California, but let’s just say that CA Redemption Value is not, now, what it was originally intended to be… and it has been deliberately pushed to be this way.

\$0.05 a can times a gazillion cans is serious money.

Here’s a post that outlines some of the funds disbursements (as of 2007) –> http://www.somelifeblog.com/2007/01/californias-redemption-value-increase.html

These funds are used in a variety of ways, including all of the below:

• Recycling funds are used to pay CRV to recyclers (to reimburse them for paying CRV to consumers).
• Competitive Grants – \$1,500,000 per year
• Competitive Grants to Community Conservation Corps – \$20 million from 7/1/07 to 6/30/08
• Curbside Supplemental Payments – Annual payments of \$15 million to curbside recycling programs
• Grants to Local Conservation Corps – \$15 million per year plus a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA)
• Handling Fees – Annual payments of \$33 million to supermarket-sited recycling centers
• Local Government or Non-Profit Agency Grants – \$5 million from 1/1/07 to 1/1/08 for the placement of recycling receptacles in multifamily housing in low-income communities
• Market Development Grants – Increases annual appropriation from \$10 million to \$20 million and extends sunset date from 1/1/07 until 1/1/12
• Market Development Payment Program for Plastics – \$5 million annually until 1/1/12 to certified entities or plastic manufacturers
• Payments to Cities and Counties – \$10.5 million per year for beverage container recycling and litter cleanup activities
• Program Administration – Approximately \$35 million per year for support of the Division of Recycling
• Quality Incentive Payments – \$15 million per year to curbside recycling programs and dropoff or collection programs to promote the recycling of glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers that meet specified quality standards
• Recycling Incentive Payments – \$10 million annually until 1/1/10 to recycling centers or dropoff or collection programs that increase their volume of recycled beverage containers
• Recycling Receptacles at State Parks – \$5 million on a one-time basis, effective 1/1/07
• Statewide Public Education and Information Campaign – \$5 million until 1/1/08

Report

2. Kazzy says:

I went to college in a state that had can/bottle deposit (5-cents).  My campus also had a complete ban on kegs, party balls, and other “central sources” (this might have been a city or state law… I’m not sure).  This meant that probably 95% of beer delivery systems were cans.  Even for football tailgates (we were far from a football school, but we were a drinking school).  The bulk of student tailgating took place in a section of town homes in the middle of campus.  After a game, cans littered the ground, overflowed trash cans, and “decorated” the inside of these dooms (which were only available to seniors).  The “can lady” as she came to be known, would make regular treks through this area, even going so far as to enter apartments (always with permission) and remove all the scattered cans that could be redeemed.  There was always something a bit uncomfortable about this relationship, especially given that we were a Jesuit school with a strong focus on community service and social justice.  Here you had 6 college kids, most of us white and middle or upper-middle, lifting our hungover laden feet just enough to allow this Asian immigrant, who we dubbed “can lady”, to clean up after us, with nothing more than our cans as payment.  And we didn’t do this out of the goodness of our heart (though we mostly acknowledged explicitly that we’d rather here have the redemption money than us), but because of the convenience of having one less cleanup job to do.

“Can lady” and her brethren made quite a haul.  They’d fill dozens of bags.  We’d often see them later on at the liquor store, turning the cans in (one by one via the machines as mentioned above) while we loaded up for the next go around.

Perhaps my pity is misplaced.  At 5-cents a can and with regular pickup of tailgates and regular partying, it wouldn’t shock me if the campus yielded upwards of \$1000 a week.  That was probably split amongst several folks doing the work (I know there were others than can lady, though she seemed to have “rights” to the area of campus where we lived).  But I suppose there are far worse options for the homeless and/or destitute.

Looking on a macro level, an obvious benefit to this system is that a TON more cans get recycled than otherwise would have been.  Every study I’ve seen says that states with can/bottle deposits far outpace those that don’t when it comes to recycling rates.  Of course, if someone were so inclined, they could easily point to these systems as “redistribution of wealth”.  Those people would deserve a beer can, full and unopened, upside the head.

Report

• There was a gentleman living on CMU’s campus doing the same.  But we have a \$0.10 deposit on cans (so double the money).  Also he would engage students in conversation about events, goings-on, their lives and often ask them for lucky numbers to play.  Most of his proceeds from the can recycling went into lottery tickets and he would give half the winnings to students that gave him lucky numbers that also turned into winners.

I really do think that his “plan” was to sooner or later hit it big (as in one of the \$25,000 wins) and then reboot his life from there.

Report

• Kazzy says:

As noted, the woman on our campus was an Asian immigrant and my minimal experience with her indicated limited English skills.  Some people said she was nasty to them, but I never had a negative interaction, and I’m sure some of my fellow students based that assessment on her age, ethnicity, appearance, and general lot in life as they did on how she actually handled herself.  I don’t know what her plan was.  I still see her from time to time when I’m back on campus, so she’s still kicking it 8 years later, albeit kicking it the same way.

Report

• Dan Miller says:

It’s not just the additional recycling, but the decrease in litter. When I was a kid in the ’90s, we often vacationed in Michigan and the difference from my home in Illinois was striking. I have to imagine a lot of that was due to the can deposit.

Report

3. Kolohe says:

I am out of touch.  When I ran recycling drives in college, we were only getting about 20 cents a pound from Reynolds.

Report

4. Sunday night is the can pick up where we live. We’re in a downtown high rise and there is one guy who goes through the giant recycling dumpster of the high rise next to us every Sunday night at about 11:00. He has other “shifts”, too, as he is near-constantly riding around the neighbourhood (on his bike) taking a haul of cans and bottles to the beer store, which is only about four blocks from our apartment.

He does the whole thing very professionally. He generally makes very little noise, and when returning his empties, he always lets other customers go first, since he’ll take up more time.

Report

5. You know, here’s a thought on your final couple of paragraphs:

If I knew someone was rooting through my recycling for the empty beer bottles (my cans go in a bag to give away when the near by high school does a can drive), I wouldn’t bat an eye.  But I’d want to know that was ALL they were going through.  In this day an age, when someone’s picking through my trash how do I know he/she’s not looking for that one errant credit card offer I didn’t shred that has enough information on it to hack my online bank account?

We’ve already had 3 credit cards compromised in the last 5 years.  Not what I call “good times”…..

Report

• Kazzy says:

For this and other reasons, maybe it’d be prudent for the folks to sort it themselves.  It really doesn’t take much time to do, would help you better identify potential identity thieves (folks taking the clear plastic bags full of cans and moving on are okay; folks going into the trash can are likely not), and is a small-but-not-inconsequential assist to a person in need.  Win-win-win, as far as I see.

Where I live now, we have co-mingled recycling once a week and regular trash pick up twice a week, all on separate days. Recycling goes out in two green tubs.  I tend to put cans/bottles/jars in one and paper/cardboard in the other only because it fits better and I’m a bit anal like that.  We don’t really have pickers, since we’re in a pretty rural/suburban area without enough population density to make it a worthwhile approach.

Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

Shred everything.

Period.

Report

• Kazzy says:

Oh. Agreed. My point was only that if you had a clear or blue bag full of cans and someone walked up and took that away and didn’t touch anything else, there is no need to worry about that particular guy.

Report

6. DensityDuck says:

Can you imagine a less-demanding job than picking recyclable materials out of the bins that other people already put them into for you? You say “busting their hind end” but, really, what the hell else are they gonna do? They’ve got nothing but free time.

It looks like a lot of work for not much return to you, because you have other options for work. You have a good job to start with, and if you lost that one you could get another. These people have no form of identification and no permanent address, which means that they pretty much cannot get a job, even if they wanted one.

Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

I don’t know about your collection method, but all of our recyclables go into a common can. Plastics, glass, aluminum. The cans are bigger than the household trash receptacles, and tall enough that dumping a small can full of stuff from the kitchen into the outside bin usually results in a broken bottle or three. I have no idea how the separate it at the facility; there’s lots of different trash sorting mechanisms nowadays.

If you’re looking at it in a game theoretic manner, then yes, it’s a way for an undocumented destitute person to gain access to economic activity.

Sure. Good on ’em for finding a way to make money.

I look at it as, “Jesus, our system is set up such that some peoples’ opportunity is ekin’ out a living by digging through my trash, and it’s not a particularly lucrative living, at that… it’s well, well below poverty wages.”

That says something to me.

Report

• Kimmi says:

putting broken glass bottles in there is horrible. sometimes they sort those by hand…

Report

• Simon K says:

If you have single stream recycling, it is not sorted by hand. This isn’t Haiti.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

But it isn’t “opportunity”. Nobody expects to make a career out of this, or even a living wage. This is beer money, not survival; they wouldn’t starve to death if all of the bins were locked, they get their meals at the shelter (or by bumming at an off-ramp).

Report

• Kazzy says:

That is a lot of assumptions to make, Duck. I agree that it isn’t the backbreaking, death-defying labor that some might be implying it is. But it also isn’t a desk job. You’re picking through trash, plain and simple, and hauling heavy bags around all day.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

Hard compared to farming? “All day” compared to a nine-hour shift in food service?

Report

• Kazzy says:

I’ve never farmed (I’m not going to pretend that paying to pick my own strawberries counts). I have hauled trash, though just tossing bags into the back of the truck; no picking. I’ve worked in food service as a caterer and as a delivery person. I’m somewhat but not fully qualified to comment on the relative difficulty of all these jobs. However, I will say that all of them likely fall in between “backbreaking, death defying labor” and “a desk job”.

And on a topic in which I’m sure your mileage will differ, there is an element beyond the physical toll that I feel should be considered. I could imagine picking through trash taking an emotional toll far greater than that which farming does.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

The bum can start whenever he wants and quit whenever he feels like. He gets a rest break any time he wants one, and a bathroom break whenever he needs one. If he wants to take a two-hour lunch he just does it. And there is exactly zero mental effort involved. It is not a hard task.

Report

• Kazzy says:

So does everyone who works from home. Or owns there own business.

Report

7. DensityDuck says:

Also, this is one of those things like stealing copper wire out of streetlights, where the actual damage is out of proportion to the income derived. Most recycling-collection firms set up contracts for specific amounts delivered, because industry doesn’t run well on “you get whatever we got”. If they don’t deliver the contracted amounts they pay serious penalties for it–and if bums stole all the damn cans then they can’t deliver those amounts. Similarly, it costs at least ten times as much to replace the wire in a streetlight as the bums get for selling the wire to a scrap dealer.

Report

• Patrick Cahalan says:

This is – at least in my opinion – nothing at all like stealing copper wire out of streetlights. Like I said in the OP, I just find this train of thought odd.

“If they don’t deliver the contracted amounts they pay serious penalties for it–and if bums stole all the damn cans then they can’t deliver those amounts.”

True. If the city signed such a contract that didn’t account for this, they’re blithering incompetents.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

“If the city signed such a contract that didn’t account for this, they’re blithering incompetents.”

Well, yes, it’s easy to say that when your first assumption is that nobody would ever find it worthwhile to steal trash out of a dumpster.

Report

• Kazzy says:

If that is indeed the case, then I agree that the behavior is not as innocuous as it seems. But there is still an issue with a collection company operating in such a manner. They get screwed whether my garbage gets picked through by a stranger, I take it to a redemption center myself, or I give it a way to the stranger. Would either of the latter two actions be wrong given the broader situation? If not, then it is hard to argue the first is wrong, especially if the picking is done with the tactic permission of the homeowner, making it more akin to the third. If those latter actions are wrong, then it seems strange than individuals have such an obligation without their involvement in the process.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

Well, if it’s a big hassle to get your stuff to the recycling center because you’re at work all day and the place is only open ten-to-four on weekdays, then you might simply not have the time to go. And even then you aren’t really going to get a lot of money (see above re: per-can versus by-weight.) So for most homeowners I’d guess it’s actually a net cost to take things to the center as opposed to throwing them in the bin.

Report

• Kazzy says:

Fully acknowledged.

But my point is that the contract itself is troublesome because it seems to impose an obligation on the individual. Laws against me taking copper wire makes sense because that copper wire belongs to the city (or whomever) they presumably do not want me to take it. Laws against me taking recyclables out of curbside bins make less sense if I do so with the endorsement of the owner of those bins. If the pickers are indeed stealing (in the same way that someone taking copper wire is stealing) despite the endorsement of those who own the bins and presumably the trash/recyclables in them, that presumes that the collection agency (the one who is harmed by the taking) is the rightful owner of those recyclables. Which then makes me wonder at what point they take possession of them. It just seems to open up a host of issues.

Which is not to say that the pragmatics of the situation don’t support your position, that pickers’ actions harm someone. The question just shifts to what grounds does the person being harmed have to make a claim.

Report

• DensityDuck says:

“Laws against me taking recyclables out of curbside bins make less sense if I do so with the endorsement of the owner of those bins.”

I’d say the city’s view is that once the bin’s out at the curb, it and its contents become city property.

If a property owner wants to donate their recyclables to the homeless then nothing’s stopping them doing that.

Report

• Kazzy says:

Do you agree with the city’s view? And is the effect any different if I give out the recylables instead of allowing them to be picked out? The contract still comes up short.

Report

• Scott says:

Kazzy:

For recycling to work/continue it has to be profitable. The only way for it to be profitable is if the city/company that performs the collection gets the high value recyclables like cans as well as the lower value recyclables.

Report

• Kazzy says:

Scott-

I understand that. But that seems to put a duty or obligation on individuals based on a contract they had no involvement in. Suppose I opt to build a fort out of my cans instead of recycle them… would the city have the right to require me to do otherwise?

Report

• DensityDuck says:

“But that seems to put a duty or obligation on individuals based on a contract they had no involvement in.”

And a Ron Paul voter was born.

Report

• Stillwater says:

+ ??? well, points DD. Nice catch.

Report

• James Hanley says:

I’d say the city’s view is that once the bin’s out at the curb, it and its contents become city property.

So if I take my recyclables out, then change my mind, I’m breaking the law by taking them back?

Report

• DensityDuck says:

Dude, there’s places where you can’t even keep rain that falls on your property.

Report

• Kazzy says:

That’s some BULLLLLLLSHIT. I’m just surprised to see YOU defending such policies, to the extent that you actually are defending them… I suspect you might simply be pointing out the other side of the coin. Either that or you hate poor people… :-p

Report

• DensityDuck says:

Why do you think I’m defending it? If you don’t want to give the city your recyclables then don’t give the city your recyclables. But in any transaction there must be some point at which it’s recognized that ownership has been transferred. For the recyclables, it’s the moment where the bin hits the curb.

Report

• Kazzy says:

“But in any transaction there must be some point at which it’s recognized that ownership has been transferred. For the recyclables, it’s the moment where the bin hits the curb.”
I just don’t think that much is clear or universally accepted or agreed upon.

Report

• Kazzy says:

Plus, there do exist places where you can get fined for not recycling (or, more accurately, putting recyclables in the trash).

Report

• James Hanley says:

But in any transaction there must be some point at which it’s recognized that ownership has been transferred. For the recyclables, it’s the moment where the bin hits the curb.

Or it could be that it’s the moment when the city actually takes possession of them. That one has the benefit of being a lot more logical and a lot easier to enforce.

Report

8. wardsmith says:

Your post instantly made me think of this (hope it works, for some reason the site was encrypted)

Report

• wardsmith says:

Must be something to do with the errant combox (I see it is changed, but is it fixed?)