Melissa Simpson

NYC’s Independent Recyclers Emerged From the Pandemic Stronger Than Ever. Here’s How.

New York’s canners and lateros have acquired property, created a redemption facility and community hub – and begun to organize.

Story by Oscar Perry Abello

Photography by Melissa Simpson

Published on

This is your first of three free stories this month. Become a free or sustaining member to read unlimited articles, webinars and ebooks.

Become A Member

Josefa Marin and her partner Pedro Galicia arrive at 6:30 a.m. most mornings outside the Sure We Can Redemption Center in Brooklyn’s trendy Bushwick neighborhood. The facility itself won’t open for another hour, but in the meantime they get a head start on sorting through the cans and bottles they’ve collected the previous night from apartment buildings, restaurants, bars, clubs or events where organizers have tabbed the couple to help out with recycling.

Since 1983, consumers in New York State have paid retailers a 5-cent deposit per can or bottle covered by the New York Returnable Container Act, more commonly known as the “Bottle Bill.” It was meant as a way to incentivize recycling. Consumers can get back those 5 cents per container by returning materials marked eligible for redemption to grocery stores, bodegas, or other retailers — or by bringing them to a state-licensed redemption center like Sure We Can.

Many New Yorkers never seek refunds of those deposits themselves, creating opportunity for independent recyclers like Marin to gather eligible containers and earn those 5-cent deposits instead.

As many as 10,000 independent recyclers, also known as canners or lateros in Spanish, walk the streets of New York City each day collecting containers for redemption. Some do it just for some side income on top of their regular jobs, while others like Marin use it as their main source of income. She’s been canning full-time for 20 years.

It can be complicated work. Marin and her partner have spent years building up their network of property managers, workers and promoters or other event organizers who give them access to materials for sorting and collecting. It’s a constantly revolving door of relationships to renew or maintain as bars and restaurants close and open, and as workers come and go.

The one fixture has been Sure We Can, the last nonprofit redemption center in the city. Founded by canners for canners in 2007, Sure We Can pays independent recyclers extra for sorting the containers themselves based on brand and wholesale distributor — an additional penny per can or plastic bottle, or 1.5 cents per glass bottle.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, all of that was thrown in jeopardy. The statewide stay-at-home order went into effect in March. Bars, restaurants and large events shut down, who knew for how long at first. Many workers were laid off, at least temporarily. It wasn’t clear when it would be possible or safe to get back to collecting cans and bottles from apartment buildings. Not to mention, Sure We Can’s landlord had decided to sell the property and asked the organization to vacate its location by the end of April.

Four years later, Sure We Can has emerged in a stronger position than ever. It now owns its lot in Bushwick, where it has been located since 2010. The nonprofit acquired the property last year for $2.6 million, with $2 million coming from a loan and the rest coming from a state grant. The space serves as more than just a redemption center. It’s become a community hub for independent recyclers to organize and represent their own interests in the legislative process to boost their incomes from canning.

Read more: New York’s Can Collectors Say It’s Time For Their First Raise in 40 Years

Independent canners in NYC

Josefa Marin, board president of the Alliance of Independent Recyclers, and her partner Pedro Galicia.

Marin was elected in 2023 as the inaugural board president of the newly formed Alliance of Independent Recyclers. The 5-cent deposit hasn’t gone up since New York’s Bottle Bill first went into effect more than 40 years ago. The alliance is now part of a campaign to increase the deposit to 10 cents, which would effectively double Marin’s income. The legislation they’re backing also provides crucial support to redemption centers like Sure We Can.

“I’ve learned so much here I would never have if we never came to Sure We Can,” Marin tells Next City, in Spanish. “I’ve learned about organizing, learned about public speaking. Now I’m not so afraid.”

The pandemic led to changes that helped position Sure We Can to acquire the property it has called home for more than a decade. The actual work of bottle and can redemption being on hold meant the nonprofit’s main stream of income was also temporarily cut off. Under New York State’s bottle bill, redemption centers as well as retailers receive a 3.5 cent handling fee per eligible container sorted and returned to wholesale beverage distributors, importers or breweries. With handling fees reduced to almost zero for almost a year, Sure We Can became more dependent on grant income than ever before.

The pandemic also pushed Sure We Can to start looking for more long-term grant funding to support community building and organizing among independent recyclers, who look to the work itself in part as a valued source of community in a city that often looks down upon them because of who they are — so many of them refugees, asylum speakers, or other immigrants, often undocumented, and many who have mental health issues or other barriers to other forms of employment.

“Because of the requirements of the grants it got us to get our financial representations better in order, our audits nicely organized,” says Ryan Castalia, executive director. “And as part of the grant work we were able to build connections in the foundation world, and they know banks and lenders.”

Independent canners in NYC

An estimated 10,000 independent recyclers gather containers across New York City.

Those new connections came through for Sure We Can at a crucial moment in 2021. A trucking company contracted by a major bottled water brand to do its redemption pickups had fallen into some internal strife, delaying pickups and causing cash flow issues for Sure We Can as it couldn’t invoice anyone for deposits it had already paid to independent recyclers. Fortunately, a community development lender called the Nonprofit Finance Fund was able to step in with a $250,000, interest-free bridge loan that enabled Sure We Can to continue paying its expenses while it was waiting for the trucking company situation to be resolved.

The Nonprofit Finance Fund was founded in 1980 as the Energy Conservation Fund, specializing in making loans to other nonprofits to help them reduce their energy costs. Though its mission has since expanded beyond energy reduction, Nonprofit Finance Fund still specializes in making loans to nonprofit organizations across the country. It also provides technical assistance and consulting services to help nonprofits navigate increasingly complex real estate deals and construction projects.

With more than $250 million in assets today, Nonprofit Finance Fund is one of the larger federally-certified Community Development Financial Institutions across the country that isn’t a bank or credit union. Instead, Nonprofit Finance Fund itself borrows mostly from some of the larger banks around the country, combining those funds with subsidies from philanthropic sources and public dollars to make its lending possible.

Despite Nonprofit Finance Fund’s experience and reach, Sure We Can is the first redemption center it’s ever worked with. There aren’t many opportunities nationwide to work with redemption centers, and very few of them are nonprofits. New York is one of only 10 states, plus the territory of Guam, that have their own bottle bills. Castalia is aware of only one other nonprofit redemption center in the U.S. — The People’s Depot, operated by the Groundscore Association in Portland, Oregon.

Nonprofit Finance Fund provided Sure We Can a $2 million loan to acquire its property last year. Handling fee income proved to be the key. There’s always the risk of another global pandemic, and it can be troublesome calling distributors to remind them to pay up., But since it mostly involves private sector actors, the handling fee income is a more reliable income stream than being entirely dependent on grants and government contracts, says Richard Barnes, director of underwriting at Nonprofit Finance Fund.

Sure We Can currently processes around 12 million eligible containers a year, generating just over $600,000 in annual deposits paid to independent recyclers and $420,000 in handling fee income to Sure We Can. Some of Sure We Can’s handling fee income also goes directly to independent recyclers like Marin and her partner who do their own sorting work.

The bottle bill update that Marin, Sure We Can and environmental activists are now pushing for in New York State would not only double income for canners — it would also bump up the handling fee from 3.5 cents to 6 cents per eligible container. The handling fee hasn’t gone up since 2009. As a result, redemption centers have been struggling to remain in business as operating costs increase. Half of redemption centers across New York State have closed since 2008, according to the Empire State Redemption Association.

Independent canners in NYC

Founded by canners for canners in 2007, Sure We Can is the last nonprofit redemption center in New York City.

There is evidence from other states that boosting the bottle deposit amount will result in even more eligible material diverted from landfills.

Since New York’s Bottle Bill went into effect in 1983, an average of 65% of eligible containers have been redeemed statewide every year, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In 2021, that amounted to more than 5.5 billion plastic, glass, and aluminum beverage containers redeemed — totaling 241,505 tons recycled.

States with higher deposit amounts report higher redemption rates — with its 10-cent deposit in place since 1976, Michigan has for years seen 97% redemption rates. Oregon’s redemption rate has been as high as 88.5% since its deposit went up to 10 cents in 2017. In states without bottle bills, the average recycling rate for similar containers is just 22%, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

States also periodically update their bottle bills to add more types of covered containers, like bottled water, which New York only added to its bottle bill in 2009. This year, independent recyclers and their supporters in New York are looking to add bottled coffee and tea products, noncarbonated fruit and vegetable drinks, wine, and liquor, none of which are currently covered.

One concern from New York retailers is that higher redemption rates and a wider variety of eligible containers will mean canners or consumers will bring back more containers than they have space to store onsite while waiting for wholesale distributors to pick them up and return them to producers or importers.

Director of Sure We Can

Ryan Castalia is the executive director of Sure We Can.

Castalia acknowledges that storage space for redeemed containers is a legitimate concern. But he argues the logistical challenge can be addressed by increasing the handling fee, which would help redemption centers stay open, maybe add more open hours, and could even lead to more redemption centers opening instead of continuing to dwindle in number. Unlike retailers, who can limit the daily volume of bottles and can deposits redeemed per person to as little as $12 a day, redemption centers typically accept as many eligible containers as anyone can bring.

Advocates also argue that more of the unclaimed deposits should be reinvested in the redemption system, including redemption sites as well as the “reverse vending machines” located outside many grocers and bodegas across New York, used by many independent recyclers or consumers who don’t have the time or need to travel all the way to a redemption center. The machines break frequently and often reach capacity days before distributors can come to empty them out.

Under New York’s current bottle bill, at the close of each year, 80% of unclaimed bottle deposits go to the state government, while the remaining 20% get absorbed by the original bottlers, brewers, importers or other beverage wholesalers. For 2021, that meant an estimated $118 million in unclaimed bottle deposits that went to the state and $30 million to the beverage industry.

Higher income from handling fees would also potentially help with Sure We Can’s next big phase. Now that it finally owns its lot, it’s hoping to make some long-needed investments on the property, starting with bathrooms that have running water. The lot faces significant infrastructure challenges, as it sits right on top of a subway line. For now, they’ve been making do with a composting toilet and port-a-potties.

This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.

Like what you’re reading? Get a browser notification whenever we post a new story. You’re signed-up for browser notifications of new stories. No longer want to be notified? Unsubscribe.

Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.

Follow Oscar .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Melissa is a multimedia journalist, techie, and recent Temple University graduate. The Philly native began her freelance career in 2012 and has since written for a host of Philadelphia-based news outlets including XPN the Key, Technical.ly Philly, and Grid Magazine. In addition to her media work, she has over five years of experience in information technology. Currently, Melissa explores her creative side through photography, publication design, and writing creative non-fiction.

Follow Melissa

Add to the Discussion

Next City sustaining members can comment on our stories. Keep the discussion going! Join our community of engaged members by donating today.

Your Name Your Position at Your Company
×
Next City App Never Miss A StoryDownload our app ×
×

You've reached your monthly limit of three free stories.

This is not a paywall. Become a free or sustaining member to continue reading.

  • Read unlimited stories each month
  • Our email newsletter
  • Webinars and ebooks in one click
  • Our Solutions of the Year magazine
  • Support solutions journalism and preserve access to all readers who work to liberate cities

Join 1103 other sustainers such as:

  • Marceline at $5/Month
  • Anonymous at $5/Year
  • Brian at $60/Year

Already a member? Log in here. U.S. donations are tax-deductible minus the value of thank-you gifts. Questions? Learn more about our membership options.

or pay by credit card:

All members are automatically signed-up to our email newsletter. You can unsubscribe with one-click at any time.

  • Donate $20 or $5/Month

    20th Anniversary Solutions of the Year magazine

has donated ! Thank you 🎉
Donate
×