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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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Photo: Sure expand=1] We Can screenshot

Simmons was born in Harlem and gew up in the Bronx, and he hasn't always been a trash picker. "A few years ago, I was working in advertising while studying musicology," he says. He can play bass, guitar and the piano. But like many, he lost his job during the financial crisis. "My life completely fell apart," he recalls. "In the span of a few months, I found myself without an apartment, and I was sleeping under a tree." So he decided to make a living collecting cans and bottles to recycle.

It wasn't an easy choice. "I see it as a humbling exercise," he says, slightly lowering his voice. "To do what I do, you have to let go of your pride."

Simmons is just one of a 5,000-strong army whose trash soldiers roam the streets of New York City. "Canners," they like to call themselves. There are some African-Americans, but "most of them are Latino or Chinese immigrants," notes Ana Martinez de Luco, a Spanish nun who became a sort of Mother Teresa to these trash pickers. "They don't speak a word of English and would struggle to find a job in the formal economy," she says of the immigrants.

Not a bad living

They all have their own stories. "Some are homeless and can't do anything else," Simmons explains as he pushes his shaky cart on a bridge over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which divides Brooklyn in half. "Others are doing it on top of their jobs to give their children or grandchildren the opportunity they themselves didn't have." Among them are also retired people who do it to earn a little extra money. Some are over 80.

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Photo: Sure expand=1] We Can screenshot

Recyclable bottles and cans can bring up to 5 cents apiece. "A trash picker can earn up to $100 a day," Pierre says. "Me, I make between $500 and $600 a week if I do it every day. Otherwise, more like $200."

By comparison, the U.S. minimum wage yields about $1,160 per month for someone working full-time. With his earnings, Simmons can pay his apartment rent and lead a modest life. "It's like an addiction," he says. "I see all these bottles, and I feel I have to pick them up, even when I'm not working," he says. "It's as if people had dropped money and left it there."

The sun has risen, and the streets are packed with schoolchildren and deliverymen. They pass Pierre without even seeing him. Suddenly, a waste department truck drives into the small street with a whistling sound. "Damn, the city's recycling service," he says, throwing himself on a pile of garbage bags. He quickly goes through it. Nothing. There's another trash picker two blocks down from here. He got here before Pierre.

"There's quite a lot of competition between canners," he says. "Each has his territory, and it's best not to encroach on other people's." Simmons works the same route every day. He picked this one because it goes through the gentrified neighborhood of Williamsburg. Where there's money, there are bottles. The Grail is to befriend a few concierges. The previous month, one of them gave him 25 bags full of cans, a goldmine for Simmons.

Cashing in

It's almost 1 p.m., and Simmons' cart is overflowing with bottles. Time to take them to Sure We Can, the collection and recycling center opened by Ana Martinez de Luco and Engene Gadsden, a homeless trash picker. They teamed up in 2005 to create a place where canners could bring their collections and get the deposit money back.

Sure We Can from Anna Fawcus on Vimeo.

Passing the graffiti-covered metallic shutters is like entering a parallel world. Mounds of transparent plastic bags filled with PET bottles and cans are piled up, sometimes reaching 32-feet high. A rooster is wandering about while the radio plays an old jazz tune. The smell of wood fire from an old stove mingles with the unpleasingly sweet fragrance of rancid soda and beer.

Wrapped up in a down jacket, Ana Martinez de Luco is waiting next to a pile of cases containing glass bottles. She's waiting for the drink company's truck. "They're late," she says. Sure We Can has deals with most major corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Heineken, for them to come and collect their cans and bottles. And they pay the deposits to the 300 trash pickers that come to this center. Last year, 6.8 million bottles and cans were brought here.

If trash pickers are the successors of 19th century ragmen, the emergence of this job actually dates back to the 1980s. "At that time, several U.S. states passed laws forcing their citizens to separate plastic, glass and aluminum, and to recycle them," explains Anne Scheinberg, a Dutch researcher who specializes in this phenomenon. In exchange, they would get a deposit. The legislation in New York was passed in 1983. In 2009, it was extended to water bottles. "But 5 cents wasn't enough," Martinez de Luco notes. "Most people didn't bother bringing their bottles and cans back."

Enter the trash pickers. Now, almost 60% of the glass and aluminum recycled in the Big Apple come from canners. They compete with the city waste department's recycling branch. "They don't like us too much," says Martinez de Luco, a short-haired woman who worked for a Catholic organization at the UN before signing a contract with the recycling company Sims Recycling.

Simmons has finished counting his collection: 194 PET bottles, five cases of cans, and a mountain of glass. He sorted everything by brand and carefully placed it in a pile of red plastic cases. "That's worth about $30," he says, disappointed. "It wasn't a good day."

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