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In A Booming New York, Meet The City's Invisible Trash Pickers

The modern-day successors of ragmen, New York's trash pickers (or "canners") are credited with recycling 60% of the city's glass and aluminum. Why don't we notice this hidden economy?

Trash for cash in NYC
Trash for cash in NYC
Julie Zaugg

NEW YORK — The city's still asleep. It's pitch-dark, and the long strip of Brooklyn's Graham Avenue, normally swamped with traffic, is quiet. In the bitter cold, a dark figure appears on the other side of the road. It's Pierre Simmons, one of many seemingly invisible trash pickers who rummage through New York's garbage looking for bottles and cans to recycle.

He shows us his most indispensable work tool, a shopping cart. Loaded down as it is, it looks like some kind of fantastic beast. Inside are a mountain of plastic bags, canvas beggar's bags and unfolded cardboard boxes. Large blue IKEA shopping bags hang from its flanks like a monstrous fur. Simmons grabs the cart and starts pushing it out along the sidewalk. With his Sony headphones on, his blue U.S. Open cap, his leather jacket and brown sneakers, he could easily melt into the crowd.

He moves with agility, almost furtively. He never takes his eyes off the street. When he sees a trash can, he scampers towards it, examines it and plunges his hand inside to extract a can or a bottle. "I collect aluminum cans and PET bottles," the 62-year-old explains in his deep voice and with a New York accent. "I collect glass too, but it's heavier and harder to transport."

He stops in front of a building and quickly goes through the garbage bags left outside. "You have to be careful," he says. "It's easy to cut yourself with broken glass or to prick yourself with a syringe." Over time, he's found all sorts of things — cellphones, money, guns, even a human arm once.

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Geopolitics

Our 'Emotional' Divide: How The Ukraine War Reveals A World Broken In Two

Russia's invasion has created a stark global divide: them and us. On one side are the countries refusing to condemn Moscow, with the West on the other. It's a dangerous split that could have repercussions far into the future.

Protesters against the war in Ukraine demonstrate in front of the Russian embassy in London

Dominique Moïsi

-Analysis-

PARIS — "The West and the Rest of Us." That's the title of a 1975 essay written by Nigerian essayist and critic Chinweizu Ibekwe. I've been thinking about his words as the war in Ukraine both reveals and accelerates divisions of the world that I believe are ultimately "emotional" in nature.

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With war returning to Europe and the risk of escalation, there is a gap between the Western view and that of the "others," a distinct "us and them." This gap cannot be explained in strictly geographical, political, and economic terms.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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