Eugene Gadsden usually speaks haltingly, but ask him about the indignities facing “canners”—the approximately 10,000 New Yorkers who support themselves by picking aluminum cans and glass and plastic bottles off city streets—and he becomes loud and impassioned.
“A few years back this truck would come to midtown Manhattan a few times a week to pick up people’s cans and bottles,” the Virginia native begins. “The guy who drove it was not treating us fair. He’d have us waiting for hours. We’d get to the corner at 7:00 am. and he’d show up at 1:00 or 2:00. Plus, he was only paying us four cents for each piece we gave him.”
It didn’t take long for Gadsden—known on the streets as the King of Canners—and Ana Martinez de Luco—a Catholic nun who became homeless in 2004—to begin brainstorming about ways to improve the canner’s lot. Despite a New York state law that requires supermarkets to accept up to 240 bottles or cans per person, per day, both Gadsden and de Luco report that it is common for food sellers to bristle when someone tries to do this. Mistreatment is rife, they say, making it hard for canners to collect their due.
Their solution? Formation of a now-three-year-old redemption center called Sure We Can (SWC) that is located on a 12,000 foot tract of land in Bushwick. More than just a recycling drop-off spot, it is fast becoming a community resource.
Sure We Can took a circuitous route to Bushwick. “This is our fifth location since 2008,” de Luco says. “The first was in Manhattan, in the East 30s. Our neighbors persecuted us,” she laughs, making light of the constant derogatory comments that came their way. Although the group paid $3000 a month to rent this previously vacant lot, after the building next to the plot collapsed, de Luco says that a demolition crew destroyed SWC’s space, making it completely unusable. A second Manhattan locale, and two in Williamsburg, followed.
Finally, in December of last year, SWC found a home on McKibbin Street—and it is a place they hope will be permanent. “Between 30 and 40 people come by to redeem their bottles and cans,” de Luco continues, “bringing in approximately 20,000 pieces a day.” Collectors receive five cents per item if their goods are unsorted, six-and-a-half cents if they’re broken down by color, material, or brand.
“By law, companies like Canada Dry, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, or Union Beer have to come to redemption centers or grocery stores to pick up returns,” de Luco explains. “These companies pay us eight-and-a-half cents for each container, five cents for the bottle or can, plus three-and-a-half cents for handling. From the extra three-and-a-half cents, one-and-a-half goes to the sorter—either the person who brought the item to us or people we’ve hired to do this work—and two cents goes to us for operating expenses, like our $4000 a month rent and the food we provide for our otherwise unpaid administrative staff.”
Sure We Can is an amazingly well choreographed production and on a broiling hot June morning the place is bustling. Gadsden runs the outdoor part of the operation, helping the largely immigrant population of canners with the sorting and arranging of what can best be described as a beer, soda, and water bottle mountain. Eight-to-ten-foot high towers are artfully arranged for easy loading onto trucks when distributors come to pick up returns.
“I basically teach people what products to put where,” Gadsden says. “A lot of the sorters are Chinese, Polish, or Spanish speaking, so there’s a lot of sign language. But this is what I like to do. It’s my way of helping people and I thank God that I’m still in good enough shape to do it.”
Although Gadsden no longer picks up empties, the 53-year-old says that he got hooked on canning shortly after New York passed the Returnable Container Act, a k a the Bottle Bill, in 1982. “I met a guy named Terry at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen more than 20 years ago. I wasn’t working at the time but I didn’t like the idea of picking up cans. Terry was a canner. He heard my story and encouraged me. His exact words were, ‘Hey, it’s money,’ so I took a walk with him and he showed me how to do the job; the next thing I knew I was trying to be the best canner I could be. I liked that it was honest work, that I didn’t need to do anything illegal to get paid,” Gadsden admits.
De Luco, now 56, came to canning shortly after becoming voluntarily homeless seven years ago. A native of the Basque region of Spain, she moved to New York City in 2004 following a 23-year-stint with the Tala Doll-Making Workshop in the Philippines. Her first position in the U.S. was as a volunteer at UNANIMA, a Catholic non-governmental organization that advocates on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and impoverished women and children.
“Somehow, after about five months in the city, I felt invited to dedicate my life to people who feel themselves to be outside the mainstream,” de Luco matter-of-factly says. “My faith motivated my decision and you can say that I moved outdoors out of love for the Christs living in the streets.”
Still, as de Luco shifted from domiciled to not, she began seeking a way to pay for her morning coffee and other necessities. She had seen people gathering cans and bottles and, after meeting Eugene Gadsden and other canners, she knew she’d found her niche.
“Eugene and I eventually met a guy who worked on Wall Street, Joe, who wanted to do something tangible for the poor. He brought us to his lawyer in October 2007 and by early 2008 Sure We Can was incorporated,” de Luco says. A subsequent $10,000 grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation’s Fund for Catholic Sisters allowed Sure We Can to launch.
Not surprisingly, in no time flat the group was providing canners with a place to redeem their wares without the stares, demeaning comments, or outright hostility encountered in food stores.
“Work is a very important part of our lives,” de Luco adds. “If you have something to do when you get up in the morning it gives meaning to the day. Canning is not the type of work that makes you tired. It’s like treasure hunting,” she says, her grin widening as she speaks. “And it’s good for the environment. The three hundred or so canners who are part of Sure We Can bring in about 500,000 pieces a month. That’s 20 big truck loads of recyclables.”
Statistics compiled by the state Department of Environmental Conservation confirm de Luco’s observation: Between 1982 and 2008, 90 billion containers were recycled, saving more than 52 million barrels of oil and eliminating 200,000 tons of greenhouse gases.
These facts make Gadsden and de Luco smile; at the same time, both concede that their motivation is more personal than political. Although each has participated in activities sponsored by Picture the Homeless, they prefer to work one-on-one within the Sure We Can community. “My main role is to be a sister, a mother, a friend, and a companion to the homeless and nearly-homeless,” de Luco says. “I accompany people when they have to go to court, to medical appointments, or to the hospital. I translate letters or find a translator when they can’t read English. We organize parties to celebrate birthdays or other milestones like someone getting their Green Card. My hope is that those involved in this fellowship will see that when people work together it benefits everyone, giving them support as well as a place—a home—to share stories, life experiences, and spiritual concerns.”