Consider the Can
June 9, 2014
You drink your beer; you toss the container. Do you know it comes back? How economics and design, laws and lobbying, craft and ingenuity, recycling theory and recycling myth, the nature of aluminum and the nature of capitalism, and grueling, endless, human labor all shape the can’s strange and eternal circle of life.
“If aliens land in 200,000 years to perform an archeological autopsy of the human species, they will find concrete foundations, Mount Rushmore, and billions of curious metallic lumps.”
Eternity lived three floors below my apartment window. You could hear it in garbage lids lifting and in laundry carts clinking down my street like sad music boxes. Between the chime of the bottles you’d hear the crinkle of beverage cans, those echoes of ancient aluminum, those barrel-shaped objects salvaged by the poor for a reason. They were sounds that signaled money for people who knew to listen, though not for the hipsters of East Williamsburg and certainly not for me. My entire life I’d taken the aluminum can at face value. I would take it in my hand, cold, and press it to my face, and I was kissing an object that would outlive me. When you consider the can, it opens not to sweetness and experience but to the limits of human achievement.
These were the noises of people at work: the scraping of metal on metal, fights in other languages, grunts of people stacking a heavy bag onto a cart filled with thousands of other hand-picked cans. Peering down three stories, I watched them mining in the sun. They wore wide-brimmed hats and yellow dishwashing gloves. Who was the boss of them? Who wanted what they found? Day after day, they dove their hands into my building’s trash, mostly invisible. I had to train myself to see them, since (for the most part) poor is not the story in North Brooklyn. In this, the land of single-batch whiskeys and crane-assembled condos, we’re home to four of the nation’s top twenty-five fastest gentrifying zip codes.
One of these workers was a neighbor I knew named Fabian Puma. I knew her first name because my superintendent spoke it loudly whenever she showed up every Thursday to forage through our clear blue bags. I learned her last name because I asked. Fabian lived just down Powers Street on the route where I walked my terrier to Cooper Dog Park. Wednesday nights, her garbage would carve out the street in front of her first-story apartment. “You gotta fortress out here!” I heard a man in a business suit stop and say. Fabian, a fifty-two-year-old mother of three, would feign surprise at the containers and smile at this, the occasional onlooker. Standing five feet tall, with a baby-doll face, she looked innocent in her work. She playfully wiped her hands on her flower-print apron, which she wore like a uniform. This spectator, after all, was part of her benefactor class—emitting the stream of cans that flows across Williamsburg, from which she cobbles together her family’s rent. An Ecuadorian immigrant, Fabian speaks no English and assumes that a mutual laugh will smooth things over. She giggled with the man, who shook his head and continued on towards Bushwick Avenue. Surrounding her were sixty-one boxes of empty bottles and fifty-two ten-gallon bags, each filled with more than 200 empty cans.
Fabian’s work has multiple names. Williamsburg hipsters call them the “bottle people.” Fabian calls herself a “canner,” while many longtime practitioners prefer the term “ecological engineer.” Like thousands of members of the working poor and immigrant communities across New York City, Fabian gathers recyclable cans to redeem their cash deposits en masse—one nickel per one container.
Back to work, she straightened her plain blue cap and re-tied the band on her ponytail. She dove her hands into mountains of glass and aluminum. On the back of each can she grazed was a block of text. Its message read:
MI-HI 10¢ CA CRV.”
NY was a bottle deposit state.
She moved with mesmerizing rhythm, seizing one silvery can and stowing it a moment later. There was method to these movements. Contrasting brands in the trash bags left out on garbage day made their way to clear recycling bags, sorted according to their nature. SixPoint tallboy cans went with Bronx Brewery tallboy cans, as both were the dispersed by Union Beer Distributors, the largest distributor of craft beers in New York City. Bud Light went in the big bag with Budweiser. Side by side, these two major brands represented the number one and the number three best-selling beers in America—both brewed by Anheuser-Busch InBev and, likewise, distributed to Brooklyn retailers by Union Beer.
As dusk approached, cracks of light between the tenement buildings caught the occasional can as she held it. Even drained and empty they shimmered. “Where’d you find all these?” I asked in Spanish. “McCarren Park,” she answered. She’d fished these treasures from outside the hundreds of bars and brunch eateries near the heart-shaped park in the center of Williamsburg. Gentrified Brooklyn drinks a lot of beer, which is good for canners like Fabian. As the white population of Williamsburg’s own Community District 1 increased more than 12 percent between 2000 and 2009, binge-drinking habits also expanded—rising from 16.7 percent to 19.4 percent of all residents, according to the 2012 Brooklyn Neighborhood Report. Almost one in five locals on a typical night on Bedford Avenue or McGuiness Boulevard consumed five or more alcoholic drinks, which represented the highest reported levels of binge drinking in Brooklyn.
Such demand draws eager suppliers and eager scavengers. Distributors like Chris Sheehan, the general manager of Union Beer, calls New York City “the world’s largest beer market.” His warehouses pump half a million cases of beer into the city every thirty days. After all, New York City is not just a metropolis but also the largest tourist destination in the U.S. With a resident population of 8.3 million, the city welcomed an additional 54.3 million visitors in 2013. Eleven million of those visitors came from abroad, people who altogether shelled out the highest overnight spend of any destination city in the world: $18.6 billion, according to MasterCard Worldwide.
Grabbing a lipstick-red Coca-Cola container and squinting at the logo, Fabian paused to consider the can for a moment.
The aluminum beverage can is a marvel of industrial design. Everything about it is designed to please you. It’s easy to stack, satisfying to open, easy to grip with your thumb and forefinger, convenient to purchase in quantity. The can never rusts, due to the non-ferrous properties of aluminum, and its byproduct from exposure to air is a protective layer. The can is easy to crush when empty and nearly impossible to crush when sealed. Its cylinder will withstand up to ninety pounds of direct pressure. Four six-packs of beer can support a two-ton car. With its perfect seal and imperviousness to light, the can will shelter its contents from sun and air—two enemies that rapidly break apart the enzymes in hops and sugar. More recently, the perfection of a polymer lining inside the can has eliminated the metallic aftertaste that once plagued canned beer. The act of pouring through its wide mouth aerates the beer and improves its flavor. These innovations have made believers out of flavor-conscious brewers like Two Brothers and New Belgium, who’ve become confident that the can is as effective as the bottle for stowing their precious cargo.
As of April 2014, 406 craft breweries offered their beer in a can. In 2011, a craft newcomer, The Bronx Brewery, decided to go exclusively with a sixteen-ounce “tallboy” to provide a point of differentiation on crowded shelves. “We’re a young, urban brewery, and this just fits our brand,” says Damian Brown, founder and brewmaster. “You can take it to the beach, sporting events, a lot of places glass can’t travel, and we wanted the beer to be sort of ubiquitous. You know, New York City’s pale ale.” Sierra Nevada premiered their signature Pale Ale in a can in 2012. The Boston Beer Co., the nation’s largest independent brewery with 1.3 percent of the U.S. beer market, spent a million dollars to design a can with a flared lip for its Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Due to a practice of continuous design improvement called lightweighting, the aluminum can also weighs less and less with each passing year. The first RC Cola cans in 1964 weighed about three ounces. Crushing one represented a display of strength. Using more complex alloys, today’s cans weigh about half an ounce. Small children can crumple them. Most of the weight in your hand, in fact, comes from the liquid. This lighter, stronger object will travel across the country more cost-effectively than its bulkier glass cousin. A fifty-three-foot trailer truck will hold about 1,000 cases of bottles or 2,000 cases of cans. By those estimates, cans offer the chance for 100 percent more product per shipment. This differential is especially significant for west coast breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., who ship their product almost 3,000 miles from Chico, California to New York.
The twelve-ounce can is also perhaps the most powerful branding device in the world. Each four and three-quarter-inch cylinder contains half a square foot of billboard space. The can is a canvas for 96.6 billion roving advertisements in the U.S.; that’s just the number of new cans we ship annually. One cultural figure, Beyoncé, became godlike in 2013 when she put her image on a Pepsi can as part of a pre-album marketing push. Each can makes—and delivers—an emotional appeal with vivid colors, fonts, and graphics. Perhaps that’s why, as the historians Waverly Root and Richard de Rochemont observe, for Americans, “packaging is an almost mystical concept.” Cans cram a variety of messages, both conscious and subliminal. The red “bowtie” Budweiser can, which hit the shelves in 2011, devotes forty-six words in a seldom-read arc of type, which many consumers take to be a decorative graphic. “This is the famous Budweiser beer,” the text begins, the start of a brand creed. Countless marketing studies have proven that consumers can picture their favorite soda or beer can in their minds. Play the game now: Sprite, Fanta Orange, Coors Light. This visual information has been encoded into our collective imaginations. Perhaps that’s why Coca-Cola executive Ivan Pollard once described the packaging as “the most enduring symbol of our brand promise.”
The experience of consuming from a can is so personal and sensual that it’s easy to forget how the container continues to exist once it is used. It’s as if the can exists not to worry you. It leverages the same single-serving psychology as countless other disposable items popularized by ‘60s over-the-counter culture—the sugar packet, the paper plate, the TV dinner: one person, one delivery device, one kiss of flavor at a time.
As if waking from a reverie, Fabian shook her head and stowed the can back in a bag. Much like her surname, Puma, the apex hunter venerated as a sacred animal in her home nation of Ecuador, Fabian rose before dawn this morning, and she’d be up again tomorrow with the light. Sleep would be sparse in the months of long days, when raw resources were there for the taking. For these were the nights and weekends when people drank at outdoor festivals and in backyards. This was canning season. She and her husband, Manuel, would leave with two shopping carts to make the mile-long walk to McCarren Park. They’d pounce on troves of metal or, as they thought of them, nickels, that grow outside the watering holes of the wealthy and young. The work would be physically taxing and require strategy, much too demanding for someone half-committed to the task. They’d obey the canner code: first to the pile, first to that and every other pile on your side of the block; don’t claim it if you can’t handle it, can’t carry it, can’t squeeze it in your cart and heave it back home. “I’m a hard worker, but I give them credit,” says my apartment superintendent, Michael “Super Mike” Serrano, who’s observed the Pumas at work for the past four years. “They walk miles picking up the cans.” There would be competition, too, in the form of other canners, hundreds of them. “You have to learn which spots, which days, which times and what is the system,” says Sister Ana Martinez De Luco, fifty-nine, a Roman Catholic nun who earned her canning credentials on the streets of New York.
At dusk, the Pumas would drag their heavy cache home past the swollen-faced winos on park benches. So many Williamsburg residents seemed to mix up New York’s homeless for people like her canning family—people with apartments and Facebook pages. It’s a common misconception. In 2002, when Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire mogul turned New York mayor, proposed doing away with the nickel deposit on cans, he quipped, “If we’re going to help the homeless, there are better ways than having them go through our garbage.” In late afternoon, for Fabian, the sorting would begin, hours of it. “Sometimes,” she said in Spanish as she wiped her hands together, “I dream about cans.”
These cans haunt Fabian because they’re endlessly recyclable and, thus, incredibly valuable to entities bigger than herself. “Infinitely recyclable”—that’s what it boasts on the side of Dale’s Pale Ale, the first craft beer to go with the can in 2003. Like so few things in this world, aluminum can be recreated from itself. Yes: an old can, with a minor infusion of alloys, can melt down and make a new one. According to Aluminum Association figures, 68 percent of the cans we hold today are made of recycled metal. As an elemental material, sitting on the third row of the periodic table, aluminum cannot decompose into smaller parts. Each can thus faces two paths in its lifespan: to continue on indefinitely in its present form or be reincarnated, regenerated brand new, like Dr. Who, at any period in its existence. If aliens land in 200,000 years to perform an archeological autopsy of the human species, they will find concrete foundations, Mount Rushmore, and billions of curious metallic lumps. Aluminum is highly mixable and malleable, and perhaps that’s why we rest so many aspects of our society upon this material. Aluminum alloys make jetliners, skyscrapers, antiperspirants, Apple computers, and tiny cans that feed our consumer patterns. Into these alloys, old cheap aluminum fished by canners like Fabian is just as effective as the expensive new stuff mined from equatorial nations like Venezuela, Guinea, and India. Through a complex system of vertical integration and market incentives—involving governments, scavengers, and the largest corporations—the beverage can shines again and again.
“Disconnected from all overtures to fuzzy animals and environmentalism, recycling, in practice, is an industrial process. When all the gears are synchronized in the loop, a consumer can release her grip on an old can and tighten her grip on a brand new can within sixty days—sixty days for can-to-can resurrection in the retail space.”
Fabian, Manuel, and their sons have a Saturday morning ritual. Fabian, the linchpin of the clan, tends to be the first out of bed. She showers, tiptoes through the boys’ room (by virtue of the apartment’s railroad layout) and makes breakfast. Their sons—Michael, fifteen, and Lagarto, thirty—plop down at the table. Devout Catholics, they say grace before shoveling food. Then, it is time for the car ride. They rise and grab the stray bags from the courtyard, which Fabian transformed into an aluminum holding pen the evening before. On the street, they pile into a Chevy minivan as if headed for soccer practice.
Their aluminum-body, Chevy Astro Mark III conversion van is a popular set of wheels among canners. Last manufactured in 2005, this vehicle boasts five-foot ceilings, a median price point of $5,000, and minimal showiness—all key attributes for canning. Originally designed for family vacations, the Mark III also offers space for an entertainment center and accent lighting on its vaulted roof. My upper-middle-class parents bought a Mark III for $30,000 in 1996, and the vehicle stood so tall that it would scrape the top of our two-car garage. As an ode to its tank-like appearance, my father nicknamed the Mark III his “Suburban Assault Vehicle.” Fabian and family purchased a used Mark III in 2009 at a time when canning was their sole source of income, converting this people mover into an industrial machine. As with any material purchase—from a sandwich to rent—the Pumas considered the value of any item in canner terms, translated into five-cent increments. The resulting tabulation was just more practical: twenty cans for a $1 coffee, 160 cans for a Big Mac combo meal, 1,400 for a pair of Levis 501 jeans at Kohl’s. The purchase of a Mark III, hence, would represent a logistical feat: $5,000 cash meant 100,000 nickels from 100,000 returned cans.
Stacks of bags cram against Michael’s and Lagarto’s legs as they take seats in the middle row. Nooks in the ceiling sit empty, where, in my father’s van, a miniature TV/VCR would blare family films like Father of the Bride and Sister Act. Teetering in the trunk are columns of boxes loaded floor to ceiling—each layer of the cake filled with twenty-four empty glass bottles. Sharing the passenger space, aluminum cans crinkle and flex in the summer heat. They emit a stale, alcoholic vapor. “Big ceiling,” says Manuel. “Enough to fit $150.” On a great week, these interiors could become so overstuffed that his sons would follow behind in a used sedan.
The Pumas take the same route each time: a six-minute drive without traffic. Starting from Powers Street in East Williamsburg, then left on Bushwick Avenue. Left on Grand Street. Right on Varick Avenue. Right on Flushing Avenue, where they pull into the line of vehicles waiting before Blue Star Beverages. Blue Star is one of New York’s many “redemption centers,” private businesses exclusively dedicated to redeeming the five-cent deposit on each container. “Redemption” is the term that the State of New York has assigned to the act of handing back a can and receiving a nickel. The transaction itself, the behavior of redeeming, feels devoid of the poetry we associate with the word. Redemption centers sell no products; they make no products; they simply pay to acquire the skeletons of old products—and not just any product but beverage containers, specifically the ones with “NY $.05” on the back. Blue Star accepts most aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastic water bottles, but confusing exceptions remain: no tea bottles, no tea cans, no energy drinks, no hard cider. A twenty-four-ounce can of Monster Energy Drink is worthless, but an eight-point-four-ounce cylinder of Red Bull gives you five cents. A plastic bottle of Poland Spring pays a nickel, but a plastic Vitamin Water will be turned away. Such are the intricacies of Bottle Deposit law in New York State, which the Pumas have learned to navigate with ease.
Redemption centers like Blue Star represent an unplanned kink in the three-tiered system of alcohol distribution invented in euphoria of FDR’s election and the 1933 end of Prohibition. To divest the alcohol industry of organized crime syndicates, who’d streamlined the art of bootlegging from distilleries to corner stores, states forbade any alcohol producer from also being a distributor and any distributor from also being a retailer. The vertical integration that had dominated Prohibition (and made legends out of Al Capone and Joseph Kennedy) vanished, and tax collection, which enabled the tracking of product from A to B, began in earnest. Everybody gets a piece: The federal government takes excise taxes from the brewers. State governments take excise taxes from the distributors. And local governments take sales taxes from the retailers. Alcohol pours into consumers’ mouths and money trickles upwards into the coffers of retailers, distributors, brewers, and government.
Like any ecosystem, the new beer industry sustains a food chain; it nourishes a pyramid of predators, grazing herbivores, scavengers, and parasites. In this tiered community, only retailers receive the license to sell to consumers. Only breweries receive the license to brew. And only distributors, middlemen, receive the contract to the shuttle the beer between brewers and retailers. They are the trusted intermediaries between warehouse and shelf. The arrangement purred on for decades, growing until beer production reached all-time highs in the early 1990s, averaging 200 million thirty-one-gallon barrels per year between 1990 and 1995. Then in 1996, New York distributors pressed their hands on the scale. These distributors lobbied for a bill to extend their contracts with brewers in perpetuity—eternity plus a day. Their contracts would remain exclusive and parceled out county by county. For example, Union Beer Distributors maintained exclusive rights to distribute all Anheuser-Busch InBev products in Kings County (Brooklyn) until the end of time. But it could never distribute Anheuser-Busch products in Queens County; that contract was locked up with Anheuser Busch Distributors of New York (a subsidiary of the mothership, which sidestepped federal regulations through a separate profit and loss sheet).
When the law was enacted, major brewers like Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller held more than 97 percent of the domestic beer market. Losing a distribution contract to a major brewer would eviscerate a business. August Busch III, CEO of Anheuser Busch in the 1990s, famously said that he expected “100 percent share of mind” from his distributors, some of whom ejected non-Anheuser-Busch brands from their warehouses. Today’s market is a different planet. As of June 2013, the U.S. boasted 2,483 operating craft breweries, with another 1,250 in the works. Meanwhile, wholesale distributors consolidated nationally. Back in 1996, there were 3,482 distributors, and by 2011, there were about 2,000. To access the New York market, craft brewers now signed the kind of distribution contracts that had been designed to tame brewing behemoths. As overall beer sales declined for major brewers, craft beer sales continued to rise—growing 15 percent by volume in 2012, according to The Brewers Association. That year alone, the denizens of New York City purchased more than 100,000,000 cases of craft beer. In jostling for market share, New York distributors began trading exclusive contracts with each other like baseball players. For example, in September 2013, Union Beer Distributors traded its rights to Schmaltz Beer Company, the makers of Coney Island Lager, to Manhattan Beer Distributors. Chris Sheehan, General Manager for Union Beer, described the deal as “tiny” in the bigger picture of trading and selling brands. Some craft breweries occasionally fought back against unfavorable deals. In 2011, Brooklyn Brewery sued an upstate distributor for the right to terminate their contract. In the end, the brewery bought its freedom through $200,000 in legal fees and the payment of an undisclosed sum. In 2012, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo championed a “carve out” rule through the legislature that enabled the smallest brewers (less than 300,000 barrels per year) to switch distributors by ponying up the value of their distribution rights—in essence, buying out the contract. Armed with an escape hatch, craft brewers gained some leverage in accessing the New York market.
The Pumas wait about fifteen minutes for their turn in front of Blue Star. The sun, magnified through their windshield, makes the dashboard too hot to touch. The line snakes past a diesel station serving trailer trucks on the border of Queens and Brooklyn. The Pumas inch forward toward the men in orange vests until no one stands in their path. Manuel slides the shifter into park and idles the maroon Mark III before the warehouse door, which looms large. A greenish Mark III, which could be the twin to the Pumas’ van, idles a few spots away. Around them, fathers stand on the asphalt sipping sodas. Moms fan themselves and yell directions. Kids run the garbage bags to the cavernous door for redemption.
In the three-tiered universe of beer, redemption centers like Blue Star are neither brewers nor distributors nor retailers. They are not part of the supply chain funneling 96.6 billion beverage containers to consumers. Instead, they are part of the reverse supply chain, funneling 46.9 billion of those beverage containers back from consumers’ mouths to factories. Together, the supply chain and the reverse supply chain create what’s called a “closed loop” system. This loop is what transforms a disposable can made for a one-way journey into a two-way can that returns to its source. The branded term for this closed loop system is “recycling,” or, quite literally, restarting the cycle of production.
Disconnected from all overtures to fuzzy animals and environmentalism, recycling, in practice, is an industrial process. When all the gears are synchronized in the loop, a consumer can release her grip on an old can and tighten her grip on a brand new can within sixty days—sixty days for can-to-can resurrection in the retail space. The resurrected can that we press to our lips is therefore ageless; it is representative of past can forms, its present form and future can forms. Major brewers have come to love the closed-loop phenomenon because it saves them fractions of a penny per container that aggregates into millions in cost savings per year. Most major brewers hesitate to publish the value of this windfall, as that number reveals who benefits financially from a system subsidized by municipalities and taxpayers. But in March 2013, Anheuser-Busch issued a press release trumpeting the success of its three-year global environmental plan: “Recycling initiatives have generated approximately 420 million USD in revenues globally from finding beneficial uses for recyclable materials generated from AB InBev’s processes. Efforts to use water and energy more efficiently also generated an estimated global cost savings of 92 million USD.”
Considering that AB-InBev realized $36.6 billion in global profits from 2010 to 2012, these conservation and recycling efforts provided an average benefit of .5 percent in profits per year—no small figure in a competitive industry where margins mean expansion or contraction. That is the point. All the shuffling of hands, from individual to recycling center to factory, raises the great mound of money half a topographic degree. Recycled aluminum requires 95 percent less energy to process than virgin, or primary, ore. The potential savings in electricity costs alone is staggering. For though primary aluminum is geologically plentiful—the third most common element in the Earth’s crust and the most abundant metal—it is costly to acquire and refine.
Makeshift villages of canners appear and disappear around redemption centers like Blue Star, which in turn have popped up and closed as rising rents push them further and further to the outskirts of Brooklyn. As I observe it, Blue Star seems proud to offer a drive-thru canning experience for the underbelly. “No hassles,” explains Manuel. “Just get your money.” Every Saturday, canning families line the north side of Flushing Avenue in their vans and SUVs. “They do it as family income,” explains Sister Ana Martinez de Luco, who runs a nearby redemption center. “When it is summer or Saturdays,” she continues, “some will bring a child to help with counting.” Ideally, redemption centers do business on the ragged edges of a gentrified circle. Blue Star, in a prime retail location just three blocks away from the Morgan stop on the L train, is nearing its moment to transplant. A few doors down the street sits Shops at the Loom, a hipster mall with specialty stores like Bushy Tails pet supplies and Better Than Jam. A short walk leads you to a spate of Michelin-approved eateries dotting the L train, like Roberta’s and Northeast Kingdom. The other world encroaches.
Primary aluminum exists in nature in a mineral formation called bauxite, which can be found in nations that sat around the equator 500 million years ago, when the world was still one continent. Nearly all the bauxite consumed in the U.S. today is shipped in from overseas. The largest deposits are concentrated in far-flung places like Australia, India, Brazil, and a West African nation called Guinea. Our closest source is Jamaica. From 2008 to 2011, Jamaica accounted for 43 percent of the bauxite hauled into the country, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. To extract aluminum, bauxite must be refined through a chemical separation called the Bayer Process, which produces a high alkaline byproduct known as “red mud” that devastates marine life. The product of the Bayer Process must be purified an additional step—through a current of water and pure electricity—to yield aluminum.
To call that process energy intensive is an understatement; it’s akin to zapping Frankenstein alive with lightning. In the U.S., electrolytic processes like these are carried out near public power stations, where they consume six percent of our nation’s total electrical generating capacity, according to a report published by The Electrochemical Society. For Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of aluminum, electricity accounts for 25 percent of aluminum production costs. Yet, tapped into the U.S. power grid, Alcoa only need generate 29 percent of its own voltage.
The resulting aluminum is chemically no different from the secondary aluminum smelted down from old cans in furnaces. In fact, secondary aluminum will make the same can for five percent of the greenhouse gas emissions, five percent of the energy, and none of the costs associated with mining and seagoing transport. According to Trevor Hansen, V.P. of Recycling at Anheuser-Busch InBev, “Every can body could be reconstructed with 90 percent old cans, if you could collect that many.”
Perhaps the opportunity for cost savings is why, according to Aluminum Association figures, 75 percent of all the aluminum ever produced by humanity is still in use. “It’s operationally easy; it’s technologically easy; and it’s economically easy,” explains Samantha MacBride, the former Deputy Director of Recycling at the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) and the author of the book Recycling Reconsidered. “Where there’s market demand, things move.” Secondary aluminum comes with the added benefit of bypassing the London Metals Exchange, a global clearinghouse for primary metals, and its onerous warehousing system, which brewers like MillerCoors LLC accused in 2012 of creating bottlenecks to inflate global aluminum prices by $3 billion. Major brewers like Anheuser-Busch InBev have created wholly owned subsidiaries to siphon as many cans as possible back to their factories. Starting in 1978, the Anheuser-Busch Recycling Corporation opened recycling centers and began investing in recycling infrastructure—storage containers, can blowers, can crushers, etc.—throughout the country. By its thirtieth anniversary, the Anheuser-Busch Recycling Corporation had recovered more than 460 billion aluminum beverage containers.
These recovered cans retrace their steps in a system that vaguely resembled vertical integration. Anheuser-Busch maintains ownership of its breweries, its major canneries, and its primary scrap supplier; they contract out to their can sheet vendors, secondary scrap suppliers, and local distributors, though they also own a portion of their distribution system. The only level of the system that they don’t influence directly is the retailers. In its present capacity, as the sole supplier of can scrap to vendor Wise Metals for the production of the Anheuser-Busch can sheet, the Anheuser-Busch Recycling Corporation helps recycle 25 percent of the cans in the United States. “We want it all going back into can sheet,” says Trevor Hansen of AB-InBev. “And, you know, to the extent that we could control it all, we would love to control it all.” According to Hansen, 75 percent of the number of cans produced by AB-InBev in the U.S. are recovered annually, with the caveat that some of this total is shipped in from Canada or Mexico. That’s at least 27 billion used beverage cans exclusively benefitting the world’s largest brewer, which holds 47.6 percent of the U.S. beer market and approximately 25 percent of the global beer market. Just consider it: AB-InBev brews one out of every four beers purchased on our planet.
Several rungs down the food chain are redemption centers like Blue Star: independent scrapyards for plastic, glass, and aluminum that thrive in bottle deposit states like New York. Redemption centers profit off each state’s container deposit system by snaring a state-mandated “handling fee” for every container in their grasp. This handling fee, a few cents for the trouble, was initially created to offset the burden placed on retailers to sort, separate, and store thousands of empties on premises. Redemption centers repurposed this compensatory measure as a profit margin. And who pays for this fee per container? The distributors do, as the price of entry into beverage markets for states like New York, states with container deposits. But though the distributors comply with deposit law, they do not do so happily. “I lose probably $750,000 a year being a garbage collector,” says Chris Sheehan, General Manager of Union Beer Distributors. He continues, “No other consumer product company in America has to pick up its own trash. Not food: think soup cans, plastic containers of fruit, vegetables, olive oil, vinegar, maple syrup, ice cream, etc. Not dry goods, such as soap, shampoo, tooth paste, detergent, magazines… All that goes into the waste stream.” For distributors, payment of this handling fee is not a business transaction but satisfaction of a regulatory requirement, and redemption centers represented not business partners but beneficiaries of an unfair system.
Redemption centers don’t see their profits as unscrupulous, of course, and neither do the canners, who forage for an unconverted form of other people’s money. Even Sheehan stopped short at faulting the canners for their work ethics. “These are entrepreneurial people making money off recyclable materials,” he says, emphasizing the word entrepreneurial like a mark of character. What Sheehan faults is a system in which canners are forced to sell their aluminum not at market value but at five cents apiece—a five-cent deposit that he babysits in a convoluted process of selling and salvaging. Blue Star loves people like the Pumas because the Pumas hand-deliver their source of revenue. Every can accepted is a can for which the distributor, by law, is required to reimburse: five cents for the container, plus the handling fee.
So the system functions like a relay race with fractions of a dollar, and it plays out like this: First, the retailer gives a nickel to the distributor when the can is delivered to the shelves. Then, the consumer gives a nickel to the retailer when the can changes hands again. Make sense? Here’s where it gets complicated. Next, the consumer (or the professional canner) gets a nickel from the retailer (or the professional redemption center) when he returns the empty can. Lastly, the retailer or redemption center gets a nickel, plus the handling fee, from the distributor when the empty can makes it home. Two cents for every five-cent container, the handling fee in New York from 1982 to 2009, provides a 40 percent profit margin for redemption centers. In this equation, success depends on volume alone—which canners like Fabian and Manuel guaranteed.
Retailers don’t mind all the lost handling fees, because retailers rarely deal in enough volume for the empty can fees to amount to much. Redemption centers, over time, quietly replaced the role of retailers in the dance of cans back to companies. When the 2009 Bigger Better Bottle Bill expansion law passed in New York State, the handling fee rose to 3.5 cents per container. And 3.5 cents on every five-cent container made for a 70 percent margin of profit for redemption centers. Since the 2009 expansion law went into effect, more than forty new redemption centers have opened in Brooklyn alone.
When Blue Star’s warehouse door rises at 9 a.m. each day, a line of canners awaits with billowy carts. Blue bags hang from old broom poles like puffs of cotton candy. Business has boomed so well at Blue Star that, in 2011, they opened a second location. “It’s overwhelming the amount of people that do it,” says Albert Shtainer, Blue Star’s owner. “Since the economic hardships, people started counting their pennies.” Blue Star deals in serious quantity—far more than New York’s grocery stores, which often cap redemptions at 240 containers per visit (yielding a paltry $12.00). According to Shtainer, he easily sees 100 canners per day at each location, who all told redeem more than 40,000 containers.
Manuel riffs in Spanish with the Blue Star employee as his sons pile their cache of bags and boxes. To go inside the warehouse door is to invite a brush with claustrophobia. Workers heap cans into mounds sorted by brand that rise to the skylights. The piles of crushed metal look post-apocalyptic, like T2 after Skynet wiped away most of human civilization. Soon, the Mark III sits empty. The man chatting with Manuel makes his count and tears off the receipt for reimbursement: $155 cash, tax-free. No deposits are taxed in New York State, as deposits were created not as income but as reimbursement for an amount already paid at the time of purchase. The Pumas are reclaiming the nickels of countless other people, mostly better-off consumers who do not perceive that nickel as money.
This payment is the culmination of two days’ canning work for the Pumas—Thursday and Friday. Manuel smiles, as if surprised. “More than I counted.” The lines on his cheeks crease in parentheses. Fabian laughs at his disbelief. The Pumas receive an average of between $350 to $400 a week from Blue Star or, as Manuel puts it, “Two vans.” That’s between $18,900 and $20,800 a year in tax-free cash, which would place the Pumas below the federal poverty line (defined as $23,550 after taxes for a family of four) and below the median U.S. family income after taxes ($30,212 for 2010, according to LIS Cross-National Data Center). Earnings of $350 a week translate into 378,000 cans per year, more than 4,000 hours of canning and $13,230 in “handling fee” revenue for Blue Star. Blue Star makes almost as much as the Pumas for the Pumas’ work.
These transactions, which hold a roof above a family of four, feed an economic engine that leads from Blue Star to Union Beer Distributors to Alcoa. Alcoa’s largest mill in Tennessee produces an annual harvest of 1 billion pounds of recycled can sheet. Some $350 per week means some 7,000 aluminum containers located, transported, sorted, and separated not by Santa’s elves but by the Pumas. These canners aggregate a metal that lifted the fortunes of executives and entrepreneurs, like poor hands shaking clean hands that gathered no dirt.
“Sure We Can is the Mos Eisley Spaceport of canning, where what can be a lonely and solitary craft becomes a social experience. “
When Sister Ana Martinez de Luco powers open the armored doors to Sure We Can redemption center in Bushwick at 7:30 a.m., six canners stand at the ready. Hours of work await them in their tin village. High above, the contrails of aluminum jetliners arc towards LaGuardia Airport. Directly below, the subway rumbles as it hooks towards Queens. This place is nothing if not a crossroads for the living. Sister Ana is a Roman Catholic nun from the Basque region of Spain who moved to New York in 2004 after spending twenty-three years in a doll-making shop for Filipino orphans. She dedicated herself to the city’s canners and voluntarily became homeless. Looking out the door of Sure We Can with her thumb firmly pressed on the red button reading “OPEN,” she watches the children entering P.S. 147 across the way. A hipster in headphones pushes past the children on his way to the L train. Although, strictly speaking, these are her neighbors, they live in separate worlds. Often overworked, Sister Ana runs a hand through her pixie gray hair and squints her eyes slightly, as she tends to do when frustrated by frivolity.
Sister Ana has a humble demeanor, but she can speak in staccato and wield her words to inspire guilt, which she did more than once to me when my presence became intrusive. Eager for quotes from canners, I hadn’t really understood—until a dressing down from Ana made it clear—that canning is not a pastime but an occupation, and time is money is cans. Tiny but tough in her denim workwear, Sister Ana seems almost childlike in her ability to process through anger and accusation to reach forgiveness in a hurry. She traces her foot in gravel as people stream past the fluorescent street art and animal murals into the 12,000-square-foot lot. Among them is Malvin, twenty-seven, a student from the Dominican Republic who works at Sure We Can most days. “I think some canner may be crazy for cans,” jokes Malvin, who uses Spanish and English interchangeably.
Sure We Can is the Mos Eisley Spaceport of canning, where what can be a lonely and solitary craft becomes a social experience. “It’s nice to say hello to people,” says Anje, sixty-two, a Polish carpenter who began canning after a workplace accident broke his spine in twelve places. “It’s nice to been treated as person,” he continues, calling it a miracle that he can walk at all. He dumps a bag full of sixteen-ounce tallboys onto a plywood table. “Many people, they make me feel small. Look at me. I had job. They’re maybe fine today, but tomorrow?” Gossip on canning locations, health conditions, and city regulations floats around. “The city pass ordinance against canner,” insists one Cantonese woman as she crushes a Miller Lite. “Read it in the paper, $1,000 fine,” responds a fellow canner. Heads nod in concern, though no one is able to verify the accuracy or find the article later. “You put me in New York Times?” scoffs Lydia in my direction when she sees my notebook. She is a grandmother canner who pays the monthly bill on her Chevy sedan one nickel at a time. “You messing with me, in my business,” shouts Wanda, a weekend canner who disputes her can count with Malvin. Ana attempts to parley with a joke. “She always mad,” says Ana. “Always mad but always come back to yell.” Feng, a Chinese immigrant in his eighties, gets by with the two words of English he knows: “OK” and “Cans.” Although he has been a morning fixture since Sure We Can opened in Bushwick in 2010, the language barrier prevents him from conversing. One morning, he showed up with swollen eyes and a face bruised like a tangerine. Three local teens had ambushed and robbed him, guessing correctly that he didn’t keep his money in a bank.
Instead of chatting, Feng resorts to pointing, smiling, and emoting with his arms. Ana calls this the universal canning language. To keep from staining his shirts with stale beer, Feng affixes grocery bags to his wrists with rubber bands. His right palm, which he digs into dumpsters, is scarred into a crag that feels like a fishbone whenever he shakes my hand. He shakes it often.
Although a true census of this underground economy is hard to come by, a 2005 survey by Picture The Homeless placed the city population of canners at 1,000. Ana estimates that there had been at least a tenfold increase in that number since the downturn in 2009, though a February 2013 article in Edible Geography estimated the community at closer to 5,000. Sure We Can alone sees an average of sixty canners per day, and I personally encountered more than 400 canners in my reporting there. Considering that Sure We Can represented one of forty redemption centers in Brooklyn alone by 2014, it becomes easy to extrapolate that New York’s canning population is massive. When Sure We Can moved to Brooklyn in 2010, it was one of the only redemption centers. Today, there are so many in operation that distributors struggle to keep pace with the constant calls for pickups of empty cans and with the state-regulated accounting rules for tracking millions on millions of nickels. Payment can be slow. “They delay so much,” says Ana. “And they say to me, ‘You don’t understand; when you came, you were the only ones!’” Sheehan, on the other side of canning logistics, laments the increase. “Distributors cannot make money doing this,” he says. “It’s a huge added expense.”
This population boom has generated a commensurate spike in canner diversity. “Used to be, it was basically homeless and people of color who were canning,” says Eugene Gadsden, a canning veteran known in the canning community as the King of Cans. “Nowadays, it’s a whole variety. Chinese. Latin. Kids. Grandmas.” Canning has become so ubiquitous that when the Nets were toying with a rename to publicize their move to from New Jersey to Brooklyn, a Gothamist blogger joked, “Considering the borough’s hottest trends, perhaps The Brooklyn Canners?”
Sure We Can is something of a relic in today’s can economy: a not-for-profit center, opened by Gadsden and Sister Ana to fill the vacuum created when We Can, the city’s previous not-for-profit center, closed in 2005. After going months without a center to redeem the river of cans, Manhattan canners began roving with a message of hope—black shirts that read: “There’s a brand new Redemption Center in New York run by a Canner and a Catholic Sister…Hallelujah!” Sure We Can was up and running—first out of a storage unit on West 29th Street, then out of an empty lot on 30th Street and 5th Avenue. They lost this prime location when a planned demolition collapsed a neighboring building into their lot. Despite paying $3,000 per month in rent, Ana observed, “Our neighbors persecuted us.” In a city where power makes friends, the powerless are often friendless. Five moves later, they found this semi-permanent location in Bushwick.
Though most redemption centers run as profitable businesses, Sure We Can operates as a form of charitable service. As part of its mission, Sure We Can shares its handling fees with canners who help to sort, offering up to 1.25 cents extra on top of the five-cent deposit value. It’s a gesture matched by some, but not all, other redeemers, such as Brooklyn’s Thrifty Redemption Center, which incentivizes at a total of six cents per can. “We’re not just for canners, we are canners,” explains Ana, who spent four years “in training” with Eugene Gadsden before transitioning into her role as a canning advocate. According to federal 990 tax records, Sure We Can posted a net loss of $20,780 in 2009. It recouped in 2010, posting a net profit of $16,875, and lost money again in 2011, this time to the tune of $14,554. Its financial track record was an oddity among redemption centers like Thrifty and Blue Star, both of which make healthy profits. Sure We Can also sticks out among redemption centers in that it offers space for canners to sort on premises. That kind of preparation is usually relegated to homes, like the Pumas’ apartment, or adjacent streets, like Flushing Avenue for Blue Star Beverages.
Sure We Can watched three neighboring redemption centers spring up as the gaggle of students and young professionals migrated along the L train to Graham Avenue, then to Grand Street, then to Montrose Avenue. “For a minute, we were thinking our mission had finished,” admits Ana, noting the ease with which canners could redeem at reverse vending machines near grocery stores like Associated Supermarket, off Knickerbocker Avenue, or Key Food, off Wyckoff Avenue. But the canners kept coming.
Behind the sorting stations at Sure We Can rises a half-moon metal hangar holding thousands of twenty-four-pack boxes. On the left, a Mount Trashmore of cans grows out of a chain link holding bin. According to many canners, beer and soda distributors maintain stringent requirements for recollection. Twelve-ounce cans go 240 a bag, except for Blue Sky Beverages, which prefers 220. Bottles go twenty-four a box, seventy boxes a pallet, except for Union Beer Distributors, which prefers fifty-six a pallet. It’s an inconvenience most redeemers passed on to clientele. “That makes it take twice as long to sort as to can,” says Eugene Gadsden.
Sure We Can chooses to share in the responsibility by checking and double-checking each sort. Pack incorrectly, and distributors often refuse to load the containers onto their trucks. To get paid, canners know implicitly that Bud Light and Dogfish go in the Union Beer towers, while Coke Zero and Diet Coke go in the bags for Blue Sky. Once in a while, brands switch distributors, and Malvin struggles to communicate the change. His challenge is akin to breaking a gambler out of a system. Oftentimes, he is reduced to hand gestures. “I make nice ones, they make sometimes not so nice ones,” he says.
When the thirty-two-foot delivery truck from Union Beer pulls into Sure We Can, it’s as if Elvis has emerged. Malvin whistles with his fingers, and canners converge on the truck from inside the hangar. This sixteen-wheel truck has made more than twenty deliveries across the city since leaving Union Beer this morning. Its belly is empty. On the last leg of his trip, the driver seems eager to return to home base. He steps out with a clipboard and inspects the columns and bales for redemption—denying some and accepting others. Ana fires up a second-hand orange Toyota forklift, which has a habit of breaking down the moment she needs it. She pilots the machine like Lieutenant Ripley, maneuvering massive pallets of bottles wrapped in cellophane as if they were weightless. A fire brigade of hands links together to move the mountain of cans toward the truck. They stuff the cans floor to ceiling. The mass of containers threatens to engulf the bodies always pushing, pushing the cans inward, like Japanese train conductors packing people into trains. The Union man never pays upon delivery. When the truck fills up completely, he invoices Ana and takes off for headquarters, over the border in Queens. Ana will look to the mail for the check from Union Beer Distributors, within sixty days. Until then, she’ll front what she is able to canners who redeem.
It’s telling that Eugene Gadsden had been absent from Sure We Can for many months. Malvin, whom Ana calls “irreplaceable,” holds the King of Cans’ old job. Indeed, on June 8, 2011, after stewarding this not-for-profit through five relocations, Eugene took an unannounced leave of absence. Perhaps success had sapped the fun from the venture. In 2009, Sure We Can redeemed 200,000 containers a month. By 2011, they’d surpassed a million.
Eugene had often fought with Ana over the direction Sure We Can. According to Drew Swope, twenty-seven, a community organizer who spent a year living on the streets with the twosome, Eugene quit several times when the organization was in its infancy. In October 2008, Ana became stricken with Lyme disease and spent weeks at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital on the Upper West Side. When Eugene paid her a visit to part ways, Ana wouldn’t have it. “Ana chased him out of the hospital” and into the subway, remembers Drew Swope, the organizer. “She was in her, like, onesie.”
Though Eugene continued to be listed on Sure We Can’s board of directors until 2011, the King of Cans had returned to his old habits. “As I like to say, the streets is my home,” he says. “I got a great love for canning, and it’s hard to walk away from it.”
The narrative of Americans winning the war on garbage just by “thinking green” and separating glass from paper seems divorced from reality.
Americans threw away 153 billion beverage containers in 2010, according to a report by a recycling watchdog group called the Container Recycling Institute. That equates to two out of every three beverage containers going straight to the landfill or incinerator—500 containers wasted for every man, woman, and child in our population. Imagine 45 billion aluminum cylinders making the slow march to the dump. Then do it again each year.
New York City runs the largest curbside recycling program in the nation, serving more than 3 million households, plus public schools and city institutions. Yet, this program is battling a 50 percent drop in curbside recycling, according to the Mayor’s Management Reports, from 35.1 percent of garbage recycled in 2002 to 16.6 percent in 2012. Recycling tons per shift on the average DSNY truck have decreased year over year since 2005. Every minute, this metropolis produces more than twenty-five tons of trash. Of Gotham’s roughly $2 billion annual budget for solid waste management, about $300 million is currently spent to export the 3.3 million tons of collected waste to states like Pennsylvania and Virginia. And though the United States represents 5 percent of the global population, our nation generates 30 percent of the world’s garbage.
Among the most valuable wasted items are simple, shiny, ubiquitous beverage containers. Though these beverage containers represent only 6 percent of our waste, they represent one quarter of all recyclables by weight. The act of recycling a beverage container therefore provides an outsized benefit: an in-demand item that, in the case of aluminum and glass, could be reused again and again. In 2012, the United States eclipsed China to become the world’s leader in energy waste, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Fifty eight percent of the energy our nation produced was squandered instantly to basic inefficiencies, like heat loss. All the while, the U.S. industrial sector consumed more energy per year than any other U.S. entity. U.S. industry mined, transported, burned, and pumped 4 million pounds of material each year to meet the needs of one average middle-class American family. Considering that residential households produce only 55 percent of national waste, according to IBISWorld, a business consultant, the narrative of Americans winning the war on garbage just by “thinking green” and separating glass from paper seems divorced from reality.
Ninety two percent of Americans agree that recycling is important for the earth and future generations, according to a 2012 Ipsos survey, while 86 percent report feeling good about themselves for recycling. Three quarters of Americans claim to recycle every day. “One of the most encouraging things we’ve been seeing over the past five years is the recycling rate in the U.S. slowly ticking up,” says Trevor Hansen of the Anheuser-Busch Recycling Corporation. He continues, “There’s still room for consumers to pick that can up, pick that bottle up, finish that product and do the right thing.” Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency touts a rising national recycling rate, 34.5 percent of U.S. garbage recycled in the year 2012, the majority of materials recovered was organic: yard trimmings, food waste, etc. Yard trimmings and the like are composted into soil, nutrients feeding nutrients; there is no cradle to cradle, except in the grand sense. Paper and cardboard, coveted by Chinese manufacturers for things like shoeboxes, survive just four to six cycles before the cellulose fibers break down. Our nation’s other recyclables, materials that cannot biodegrade, such as aluminum, go to trash heaps in colossal amounts: half of the cans, two thirds of the glass bottles and four fifths of the plastic containers.
Meanwhile, beverage sales expanded 3.8 percent per year from 2000 and 2010 as overall recycling rates for beverage containers plateaued around 37 percent. Peak beverage container recycling rates of the early ‘90s have decreased, in direct proportion to the percentage Americans with access to curbside recycling. Yet, a cultural perception persists that recycling is a solved matter—case closed, like public smoking or the ozone layer. In April 2013, CBS ran a story entitled “Is recycling worth it?” in which it cited a 1997 story from The Onion that ran with the headline, “EPA: Recycling Eliminated More Than 50 Million Tons Of Guilt in ‘96.”
As Americans consume more on credit outside of homes they strain to afford, they’ve remained less and less likely to recycle in public spaces—food courts, food carts, stadiums, arenas, train stations, according to a 2013 survey by Environmental Industry Associations (EIA). Meanwhile, domestic beverage sales have grown year over year, with 90 billion units sold in 1980 and 243 billion units sold in 2010. Imbibing more liquids from more containers, we play the loser’s game of recycling at the same levels with the same methods. Consequently, we’ve lost our grip on the pace of recyclables; the gains of the early ‘90s have been lost, and recyclable materials now slip through our fingers as we stumble like Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate conveyor.
In the world of aluminum, each can lost is a can that must be replaced with virgin materials, while its brothers sit buried and immortal as vampires. “There would be, to my knowledge, no reason why you couldn’t mine landfills if it were worth the cost,” observes Samantha MacBride, author of the book Recycling Reconsidered. “But we’re talking about the free market, and it isn’t.” Because aluminum is non-ferrous, it cannot be attracted with a magnet like steel rebar and common household appliances. In the chaos of a landfill, the can would have to be picked by hand.
When the State of New York passed the Returnable Container Act of 1982, better known as the Bottle Bill, its primary goal was litter reduction. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which was responsible for deposit law implementation from 1982 to 2009, still credits the law with reducing roadside litter in New York by 70 percent. Indeed, when Hawaii became the eleventh state in the nation to pass a bottle bill in 2002—putting a five-cent deposit on beer and soda cans—the state reported a 45 percent reduction in beverage container litter within three years. The proposition for consumers in a container deposit state is simple: When a can becomes currency, why throw that currency away? By incentivizing container recollection, deposit bills split the responsibility of waste disposal between consumers and producers. Nobody wants to be out a nickel. Beer and soft drink distributors could claim unredeemed nickels as extra revenue, though it is true that the burden also fell to distributors for accepting the cans and selling them back to industries. “The end result was actually a lot of recycling, as well as very entrepreneurial uses,” says Laura Haight, senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), an organization credited with shepherding the original legislation.
Yet, more than three decades into the recycling experiment, the success of gathering and re-forging aluminum cans remains an anomaly. “Aluminum is the one material type out of the common household recyclables that always pays for itself in the recycling process,” says Susan Collins, Executive Director of Container Recycling Institute, an advocate for recycling. “There’s no other material type that always pays for itself.” In a market system, the ability to recycle any item is dependent on profitability for the end buyer, which is usually a business entity studying comparative price models business between virgin and recycled materials. Remember: recycling is an industry that involves supply chains of resources, not a social program controlled by consumers. The recycling of material back into production is, therefore, a calculated business maneuver that weighs market demand for materials against the costs of acquiring and moving it. “Recycling is a transportation business,” says Collins. “Material has to be transported from A to B, and who’s paying for the shipping?” High demand, plus low transportation costs, means incentive to recycle, as is the case for aluminum, lead batteries, cardboard, PET plastics (soda and water bottles), and HDPE plastics (bottle caps). Extremely high demand, plus high transportation costs means equally healthy incentive to recycle, as with steel. Unpredictable demand, plus low transportation costs means sporadic incentive to recycle, as with paper. Low demand, plus high transportation costs, means minimal incentive to recycle, as with glass or mixed plastic. Of all these materials, metals like steel and aluminum net the highest secondary market prices, which virtually guarantee resale (and resale ad infinitum). Plastic bottles and bottle caps spring for one successful rebirth before they degrade, which is why they are often turned into non-recyclable items like picnic tables or fleece jackets or polyfill. This conversion of a recyclable item into a non-recyclable item is referred to as “downcycling,” because the process only delays the landfill by one lifecycle. Everything else chances on a buyer: no buyer, no recycling.
To explain the market logic another way, when no demand exists for the recyclables we set at curbside, that material has to go somewhere beyond the recycling center. There’s nothing sacred or magical about a consumer’s intention to recycle that businesses purchasing those recyclables from municipal recycling centers or beverage distributors have to honor. It is not a social contract. Once we set out the trash, that trash ceases to be our property. The power of the sorting ritual—of neatly stacking the papers and making sure we rinse out those yogurt containers—is in our heads, much like the artwork on a can. No one can predict when low-demand materials will find a secondary buyer or end up stewing in methane six feet under. Unwanted recyclables ship daily from sorting stations to incinerators and landfills. There’s a reason they call it waste.
According to the historian Bartow J. Elmore, in his essay “The American Beverage Industry,” major beverage manufacturers began producing prolific amounts of waste in the 1950s by “switching to one-way, nonreturnable containers in an attempt to secure greater profits.” Prior to this shift, local bottlers operated with a voluntary deposit model that encouraged consumers to return two-way glass bottles for a few extra cents. Think milk bottles delivered by a milkman. Beverage cans, and other one-way devices, had not been born yet. The system operated efficiently. The average two-way container made twenty-two trips from bottler to consumer and back. Soft-drink containers posed a return rate of 96 percent as late as 1948. That’s eight years before the Coca-Cola Company began experimenting with one-way containers and fifteen years before non-returnable cans would comprise 11 percent of all soda sales. Yet, the market finally tipped to one-way containers not because of the rise of soda but because of the expansion of Big Beer following the collapse of local breweries during the drought of Prohibition. In 1933, three major beer conglomerates (Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Schlitz) surveyed a national landscape devoid of old competitors. In 1933, 381 breweries remained where, in 1918, 1,092 had stood. For businesses with burgeoning supply chains, the steel “MiraCan” and then the lighter aluminum can represented the ultimate one-way tickets: strong devices that could ship across country at minimal expense.
A litter epidemic ensued in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s that birthed anti-litter organizations like “Keep America Beautiful,” which were funded (ironically) by the likes of Philip Morris, Coca-Cola, and Anheuser-Busch, major manufacturers of litter materials. The term “litterbug,” created by a New York City copywriter for The American Ad Council in 1947, entered our vocabulary as a way of shaming not the profligate manufacturer but the careless consumer. A famous 1970s public service announcement funded by Keep America Beautiful featured a Native American warrior who shed a single tear at the sight of a driver throwing trash on the side of a highway. “People start pollution. People can stop it,” concluded the narrator. Meanwhile, cigarette butts filled beaches like ashtrays, and pullback can tops scattered across playgrounds. Shiny cans painted to attract eyes at the shelf continued to attract those eyes as they filled with dirt on the ground. Even worse: Each piece of litter bore the unmistakable logo of its maker. Coca-Cola President Paul Austin lamented in the ‘60s how “colored decoration on a can or the unique shape of our bottle doesn’t deteriorate.” The same logo designed to elevate consumer perceptions could diminish those perceptions later on, as the power of logo arises from association. “The beverage industry’s most precious commodity—its image of innocent fun—was at stake,” wrote Elmore.
A consumer backlash ensued in the birth of the environmental movement and the creation of Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970. Companies took major steps to harness the debate about who was responsible for managing all this waste. Despite the publicity game, a fact remained: “Trash and the pollution that attends it emanate first and foremost from systems of production that exist to make profit,” as wrote Samantha MacBride, in an essay in for Satya magazine, “Waste and Citizenship.” Even as companies outspent environmentalists to win the perception war, the problem of litter persisted. But if consumers could be shamed into thinking that the waste was their fault, and their responsibility, then all the better for the companies. MacBride continued, “Encouraging individuals to ‘make a difference,’ in contrast, poses no threat to producer autonomy, and often creates new opportunities for profit.”
So long as the demand for convenience remained, producers could exploit that demand and outsource the consequences. And our habits traveled with us. In the Vietnam War, the river of uprooted peasants, driven from villages by American B52 bombers and C-123s dropping Agent Orange, built slum cities outside U.S. Army bases using empty beer and soda cans. They scavenged these cans from American dumps, fishing them from between steak bones and ice cream cartons. They cut them open, pounded them flat, and nailed them into metal walls bearing the logos of Budweiser and Pabst and Coca-Cola. It was as if the can played its part too well too for long and needed help disappearing.
The soda and beer industries faced two options for reducing litter and solving the image problem: pay for it themselves or find a means to get it funded by someone else. Companies could fund it voluntarily, by switching back to a two-way container system, or involuntarily, through state intervention, which would mean being subjected to packaging restrictions or container-deposit legislation.
But state interference in the transaction of business invoked mixed feelings. Deposit legislation, a nickel or so on each can, represented a government entity stepping in to finagle the one-way supply chain back into a two-way loop. To spark demand and jumpstart the reverse supply chain, state governments placed an outsized cash value on an empty can: five cents in most states, like New York; ten cents in Michigan. For producers, every deposit represented a threat to their autonomy, as it subjected the containers to a government regulation. In the history of the New York State deposit system, the market value of an aluminum can has never exceeded the deposit. The closest it reached in recent memory was 2010, when market prices for secondary aluminum reached about three cents per can, not including costs of labor. Under deposit law, this differential is reconciled out of the pockets of beverage distributors to the tune of 2 to 3 cents per can, plus the handling fee, plus cost of labor and resources.
That’s how Chris Sheehan of Union Beer Distributors loses money recycling aluminum cans each year. By his estimates, 60 percent of the 96 million containers per year he releases into New York end up back at his doorstep. Then, he attempts to resell them on the secondary market. He’s found a regular buyer in the aluminum giant Alcoa, which gives him around 50 cents per pound of can scrap. Sometimes more. His mixed plastic has no market value, and so he gives the material away for free to clear space in his warehouse. His glass has lukewarm market value, though the material, like aluminum, has an endless capacity to revive itself. Still, little incentive exists to turn a glass bottle back into a glass bottle when it’s cheaper to make a new one from plentiful raw resources: sandstone or fine white sand. Need sand? Look to a desert or the ocean floor or countless geological formations. In the best-case scenario, recycled glass becomes ground up into asphalt. End of cycle. Asphalt, itself, cannot be turned back into glass. We drive over this surface until it cracks.
Sandwiched between the Vanisee Food Corporation and Fire Engine Company No. 206 in the industrial badlands of Queens, is a brick fortress. Behind an iron fence sits a stronghold of steel warehouses and bunker-like structures. A logo of an eagle with its wings wrapped inside a letter A faces the sidewalks of Grand Avenue. This symbol, the mark of Anheuser Busch InBev, provides the only clue to infrequent passersby that this land has been consecrated to the church of beer. Behind iron bars, ever-present cameras, and shielded warehouse doors sits a room encased in bulletproof glass where workers counted out several hundred thousand dollars in cash; that’s how retailers, eager to keep things liquid, tended to pay Union Beer Distributors.
Perched in an office above the main entrance, General Manager Chris Sheehan has this money hauled away each day in an armored vehicle. He observes its procession like a warden in a watchtower. This daily haul bodes well for Brooklyn’s beer drinkers. The availability of new and exotic brews depends on an incentivized system of distribution—rooting out this liquid manna from all ends of the world. After all, nothing moves in a market without motivation. With the state tracking container deposits—just a fraction of the beer mother lode—as a source of public revenue, distributors like Sheehan and company are audited quarterly. He, despite mixed feelings, cooperates fully, in order to retain access to the beer Valhalla that is New York City.
Each of Sheehan’s forty delivery trucks, which leave the headquarters at 8:00 a.m., return at the end of each day with approximately $10,000 in cash. With the empty trucks lined up like train cars, the day crew turns it over to the night shift. This second team will punch in from 7:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. to load deliveries for the next morning. Cans wait in numbered stacks on pallets and wooden platforms that rise three stories high in Union’s refrigerated warehouses. Two hundred fifty people work around the clock, six days a week, to ferry beer through this staging ground. For taste and preservation considerations, the product never rises above 65 degrees in its journey.
In the waiting room, a man in a leather jacket waltzes in and says, “Hey, a six-pack to go.” The Union Beer receptionist, a hipster in a cardigan, shrugs and shakes his head no. “What you mean no?” jokes the man as he takes a seat. He has been clued in to the irony that, due to federal law, the largest distributor of craft beer in America can’t sell a single can of beer to a consumer.
The waiting room sits behind two doors with separate buzzers. Four visible cameras observe the four chairs lining the wall. Near the corner by the bathroom hangs a Thomas Kinkade-style painting of a Budweiser deliveryman handing a crate of beer to a truck driver. In this painting, the truck driver has somehow helped the deliveryman and Budweiser is returning the favor. The driver grins while his Dalmatian sits eyeing the case of beer exchanging hands, as if anticipating a treat. Its title, A Case of Gratitude—1941, is a hat tip to the lineage of L. Knife & Son, the parent company of Union Beer Distributors. The business of L. Knife & Son, family-owned since 1898, predates this homage to the innocence of pre-World War II America. On December 7, 1941, shortly after this watercolor was done, the U.S. would enter the international theater and never leave it. Aluminum-body P-51 fighters soared over North Africa and found homes on Germany runways. Cylindrical aluminum B-29 bombers rolled off conveyors and dropped their payloads over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. According to a wartime U.S. propaganda film, enough aluminum was stored at American B-29 factories “to lay a silver carpet over every street in Tokyo.”
L. Knife & Sons began its relationship with Anheuser Busch in 1934, when a Budweiser representative bearing a sample case of beer turned up at the office of Louis Knife in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Knife hadn’t heard the name Budweiser—some St. Louis beer—in his thirty-six years of distributing. He couldn’t even pronounce the word. But its brewery, he reasoned, must be poised for expansion with a salesman this far from home. After mulling it over for a month, Knife took the risk of distributing a no-name in his state. Four generations later, Anheuser Busch represented the company’s largest and longest standing client, accounting for more than 70 percent of Knife’s case volume. In 2010, BeverageWorld named L. Knife & Son “Wholesaler of the Year.” In 2014, Beer Business Daily listed L. Knife as the sixth-largest beer distributor in the nation, with estimated annual sales of more than $750 million. The arteries of this vast financial network pulse as if powered by the happy hearts of beer lovers. Beer in. Cans out. Beer in. Cans out. The flagship distribution center of this network, which stretches across fourteen states, is Union Beer Distributors, run by Chris Sheehan.
Sheehan bounds down the stairs to shake my hand. “You’re lucky, cause I never talk to reporters,” he says. It makes me laugh. With the brands that he represents attracting so much press on their own, Sheehan believes that keeping anything other than the lowest profile is disadvantageous to his work. Upstairs in his office, bookcases and bureaus overflow with brewing books and sample cans and bottles. Sheehan smiles often, a man who loves his trade. Over his career, he’s parlayed that love into partnering with the finest breweries and tasting their finest beers. Union Beer’s portfolio includes such epicurean ales as Cantillon and Harviestoun, products that he believes have “a place at white-linen-table restaurants.”
Since buying the distribution rights to the entire portfolio of the Craft Brewer’s Guild (started by the Brooklyn Brewery) in 2003, Union has catered to what he describes as “some of the most sophisticated drinkers in the country.” Standing tall, tan, and thin, with brown-green eyes and a clean-shaven head, Sheehan has all the assurance of a patrician—hardworking, self-effacing, confident, and generous, yet also smiled upon by fate. He graduated from Tulane in New Orleans in his early twenties and went to work in the family business shortly thereafter. The Jack Kennedy of his clan, with model looks, he matches a winning style with a talent for sales built on sincerity and a flair for anecdotes. The man’s knowledge of beer is encyclopedic, and he’s traveled the world from brewery to brewery expanding it. He has a way of making connections feel personal that endears him to brewmasters, who often hail from blue-collar backgrounds and deal in handshakes. All of his 250 employees receive copies of Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer and Garrett Oliver’s The Oxford Companion to Beer as required reading. Sheehan works tirelessly to expand his empire of suds, commuting back and forth over the Whitestone Bridge to his home in Larchmont, New York. In that upscale Westchester County hamlet, he lives in an impressive but not ostentatious house valued at $2.7 million dollars that abuts the Long Island Sound. A lucky guy, by his own admission, he gives back. Every year the Sheehan Family Foundation donates more than $550,000 for the preservation of environmental havens in eastern Massachusetts, Brooklyn, and Haiti—nearly the amount he loses each year to container recycling.
Zipping up a black fleece, he pours himself a cup of coffee from the office pot and leads me down a flight of stairs to the Willy Wonka chocolate factory of beer. “You ready for this?” he asks with a grin, as he opens the door to the Budweiser room, our first stop in his 120,000-square-foot maze of warehouses. I’d never seen so much beer. All of the Budweiser consumed by Brooklyn sit in this place. Twenty-four-pack “briefcases” of Budweiser cans are lined up like bricks in a wall. Twelve-pack cases of Budweiser bottles are stacked like Legos, seven high and eight wide per pallet. They heaped these pallets three high, so that they rise within feet of the forty-foot ceilings. Industrial air conditioners cool the floors, and ceiling fans pump out the heat. Clearly, this room is for babying the beer, not for coddling human beings. I shiver in the space, even though it is 80 degrees outside, and I realize why Sheehan had poured himself a hot drink. Sheehan walks me past a mountain of Bud Light Lime. My brother in-law drinks that despicable stuff, and I couldn’t imagine such widespread demand. But there it is.
Each Anheuser-Busch case bears a secret code, Sheehan explains, which delineates its brewery of origin. As of 2012, Anheuser-Busch operates thirteen separate breweries in the United States. Twenty-two-ounce bottles of Budweiser are marked “WT-34,” which means they came from Williamsburg, Virginia. Twelve-pack boxes of twelve-ounce Bud Light cans marked “NE-15” come from Newark, New Jersey. The twenty-four-ounce tallboy cans labeled “NH-87” originate in Merrimack, New Hampshire. “BN” on the thirty-six-pack of twelve-ounce cans indicates Baldwinsville, New York. In just one corner of this room, Anheuser-Busch has pooled the outputs of four breweries to satisfy Brooklyn’s thirst. “All of this will be sold in thirty days,” says Sheehan. “Totally refreshed and replaced.” As the beer itself is only fit to drink for forty-five days after its birth, Sheehan knows the sprint that must ensue to get a case of seventeen-day-old beers out to corner stores. Timing isn’t just a factor for Budweiser, of course, but for every beer in his domain. Union represents more than 300 breweries, counting its recent acquisition of Bell’s Brewery out of Kalamazoo, Michigan. His forty truck drivers make more than 1,000 deliveries per day. Seventy percent of cases delivered consist of Anheuser-Busch’s portfolio: Stella Artois, Leffe, and Goose Island but also the more pedestrian Busch, Natural Ice, and Bud Light Straw-Ber-Rita. The other portion of his collection consists of craft notables and imports like Chimay and Duvel. Recently, growth in the craft portion of his business has outpaced his day-to-day responsibilities to the King of Beers. According to Ben Steinmann, publisher of Beer Market Insights, this careful blend of craft and mass product puts Union Beer, and L. Knife by extension, in an enviable position: offering a robust craft portfolio while maintaining its place among the largest AB-InBev distributors in the nation. “L. Knife is what many AB-InBev distributors these days long to be: less dependent on AB-InBev,” Steinmann theorizes in a book called The Craft Beer Revolution. He continues, “L. Knife is one of the only AB-InBev distributors that sells a high percentage of its volume in non-AB-InBev products.” Without question, L. Knife’s long-standing relationship with Anheuser Busch has earned the distributorship an uncommon level of trust with a brewer that once demanded 100 percent mind-share.
Orange Toyota forklifts buzz between stacks like worker bees. Drivers in reflective vests grab headphones dangling from wires, which they use to communicate with dispatch on what row, what number and how many pallets to lift. Every last case has to be marked and tracked, and each worker contends with 3,000 SKUs (or Stock Keeping Units, which tally the number of beer types in inventory) the moment he or she walks onsite. New hires often get lost. Sheehan stretches out his arms as we stroll through the dangling strips of clear plastic that separate the keg room from the Budweiser room—thousands of gleaming, silvery casks in an enclosure that feels like the belly of a barge. Then, we pass into the craft room, where 30 percent of Union’s case volume awaits. A rainbow of fonts and four-color graphics overloads my brain, to the point that I have to look away. It’s as if all my friends have coalesced in one place: Session Ale, Rogue, Allagash, Blue Point. My heart races, and I begin to feel tipsy. It is hard to believe that so much of the effect of beer could be found in the packaging. Sheehan has triangulated his business to benefit from the rise of the crafts and the cannibalism of major brewers. “I see Anheuser-Busch winning the war against MillerCoors, whose brands are essentially eating each other’s market share,” he says. “Every Coors Light gain is a Miller Lite loss. Meanwhile, craft is on the rise.” Sheehan ducks and guides me between rows with a puckish zeal. Most definitely, this job doesn’t get old for him.
Every two months, Union braces for an onslaught of seasonals that come directly to these shelves, too. “We have more seasonal beers now than seasons,” says Sheehan. Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, plus Oktoberfest, plus Holiday, mean at least six seasonal beers per year from many craft breweries. Close to every beer I’ve ever tasted winks back at me, plus some I’ve never seen. Some breweries don’t even put labels on their most exclusive products. They come in hay-stuffed crates and wine-shaped bottles known only to beer aficionados. Grabbing a corked Flying Dog Wild Dog Schwarz, a smoked double lager that retails at around eighteen dollars per bottle, Sheehan exclaims, “Now, this is absolutely one of the best beers in the world.”
Scattered among Scottish barrel-aged Harviestouns and rare Trappist brews from Belgian monasteries sit rows on rows of cans: Dale’s Pale Ale, Bronx Pale Ale, Ballast Point, Sixpoint, Two Brothers Side Kick. They look elegant, beautiful, inconspicuous among the best ales in the world.
A short jaunt outside takes us to a separate, 40,000-square-foot structure, and I see where half the cans in Brooklyn, and most of the crafts in the five boroughs, come crawling back. Thirty employees, full-time and unionized with health benefits and profit sharing, make an hourly wage shoveling and shaping millions of cans. Here, the spoils of redemption centers and bodegas spill onto troughs and conveyors, which lead into a funnel. Down this spout pours a rush of colors, stimulating the brain with brand suggestion, until it fills a $100,000 can crusher. This industrial vice applies the hundreds of thousands of pounds of pressure needed to crumple 66,000 aluminum cans into a two-ton six-sided die—five foot by five foot by five foot. When the vice spreads apart, the resulting creation is dense and smooth to the touch. Yet it smells of humanity, of parties and laughing and mouths and, strangely, breathing. It shines in the light, like the Lunar Lander from the Apollo missions. From another angle, though, you could see that the paint keeps its character as trademarks warp, and the resulting visage seems to devalue all I’d previously felt. The magic of packaging, I can see, has been a lure; there is nothing sanctified about it now. Yet, it is wonderful all the same. The bales are wrapped in wire for safekeeping, then lined up side by side and one atop another until they are roughly the shape of a truck. Twice a week, a fifty-three-foot doublewide semi the size of Optimus Prime ventures in from Alcoa to gobble up the cubes and restart the circle of life.
The cubes will be stripped of paint and melted down into pure aluminum ingots, which look like silver bullion. They will be pressed into can sheet and then sculpted into empty vessels at the canneries. Finally, the empty vessels will be transferred to breweries for refilling. It’s a beautiful process—one that rivals most achievements of industrialism. A locomotive engine can’t reinvent itself like that. Neither can the microchip or antiseptics or antibiotics. Neither can a cell phone or an airplane or telecommunications wires. We think human achievement is important because it represents our bid to live forever, like the Empire State Building. It’s funny, but when one of those achievements actually brushes the chance to reach eternity, we call it garbage.
“How like the can is he as a grown man—strong, light, and resilient, eternal in his work ethic, overflowing with niceties and yet born of the world’s furnace.”
As a collective of for-profit institutions that value revenue over social or environmental concerns, the beverage industry closed ranks in opposition to the first bottle bills, which passed in Oregon and Vermont in 1972 and Maine and Michigan in 1976. To date, seven more states have passed deposit laws, although corporate-friendly Delaware became the first to repeal its twenty-eight-year-old deposit law in 2010. The beverage industry continues its battle to repeal or roll back the container deposit in New York State; in 2009, it spent millions in a failed effort to stymie an expansion of the deposit. In general, upstanding members of the supply chain do not want to be in the dirty business of the reverse supply chain. “You’ve got the American Association of Manufacturers in total alliance with the beverage and bottling industry in opposing bottle bills,” says Samantha MacBride, the recycling author and expert. “And the reason is that they’re concerned that the additional five or ten cents is going to diminish their sales, which it doesn’t. But the idea that there should be a government imposed fee that distorts the economics of the system in order to benefit the poor and clean up the streets seems absurd to them.”
To solve the problem, distributors like Sheehan advocate for the reversal of deposit laws and accentuate the upside for municipalities who take up the slack. “Our logic is you, the City of New York, have an opportunity to make a ton of money,” he explains. “You can collect all this aluminum and sell it. Lawmakers don’t get that in ten states. In forty other states, they do get it.” Sheehan contends that recycling rates are lower in New York than they would otherwise be because of this “archaic law.” He bases his belief that more recyclables would yield greater profits on data from non-deposit cities like Seattle, which shows that municipal programs can generate revenue from recyclable materials in years when demand is high. Yet, Seattle’s revenue from recycling more than 50 percent of its waste between the years 2010 through 2012 amounted to only around $3.2 million per year—money, yes, but not a ton. It’s also not clear how much of this revenue came from cans alone. Still, municipalities, and American taxpayers by proxy, have become the beverage industry’s preferred workhorse for waste management, bearing the full financial risk and garnering the occasional rewards.
Through the resilience of the can and the muscle of municipalities, industry has found a way to not just reduce litter but also to profit from its reduction. According to the Can Manufacturers Institute, more than 100,000 aluminum cans are melted and re-forged in the U.S. every minute, which saves participating companies the energy equivalent of one barrel of crude oil every two seconds. But an inconvenient truth remains: municipal collection is not enough. Aluminum suppliers count on the aluminum recovered from deposit programs to satisfy beverage industry demand for secondary cans. “The aluminum industry knows that just relying on existing curbside programs doesn’t get them the aluminum that they need,” says MacBride. She continues, “They hope to somehow achieve what bottle bills achieve without the onerous regulation. So, they are in a very ambivalent position.” Recycling, through decades of corporate lobbying and public service branding, has been seared in our minds as a consumer choice. “Curbside recycling,” as it was branded, to associate municipal pickup with drive-thru efficiencies, became the cure-all that would enable recycling without subjecting businesses to regulations that, businesses argued, killed jobs. Senator Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a proponent of federal container deposit bills that failed in the U.S. Senate in 1972 and 1976, called this argument the “smokescreen of job losses and economic doom.” Victories for the beverage industry gained momentum throughout the 1980s, and the number of municipal recycling programs in the U.S. increased to 600 by 1989, and 4,000 by 1992. In 2009, there were more than 9,000.
In the state of New York, deposit law predates most municipal curbside recycling efforts. New York City began limited voluntary recycling, for newspapers only, in 1986. Each of the past twenty-five years since city began recycling metal, glass, and plastic, the city has paid a vendor a per-ton fee to remove these materials from its sorting centers. Emphasis: there is no natural market demand for the city’s metal, glass, and plastic; the city pays for someone to accept its aluminum. This metal often comes mixed with glass and PET plastic bottles, which must be removed before they explode in a smelting furnace. From 2006 to 2012, the DSNY paid an average of $14.29 million per year in processing fees to recycle metal, glass, and plastic. “The Department of Sanitation is collecting what has, basically, been picked clean of the most valuable materials,” says Samantha MacBride. She continues, “But even if there was no scavenging and everybody threw aluminum into curbside recycling, yes it would enrich the mix somewhat, but it would still cost the city money to recycle.” Container deposits, meanwhile, have encouraged consumers to recycle more than ninety billion containers in New York State since the program’s inception. These aluminum cans have been picked, separated by size, and organized by thousands of hands. “It was a policy established to address one problem,” argues Laura Haight of NYPIRG, the recycling advocacy group, “that ended up being a win, win, win on so many levels.”
According to Container Recycling Institute figures, 46 percent of the beverage containers recycled in the U.S. came from our eleven bottle deposit states. These eleven states, which recycled almost half of our containers, represented just 28 percent of our nation’s population. In deposit states, the aluminum can recycling rate averaged 84 percent. In the thirty-nine non-deposit states, with 72 percent of the U.S. population, the aluminum can recycling rate was 38.6 percent. Clearly, deposit states were and are recycling an outsized share. “The system works better than any other that has been tried in terms of recovery of materials,” says MacBride. Trevor Hansen of the Anheuser Busch Recycling Corporation named Michigan, with a 96 percent redemption rate, and California, with an 82 percent redemption rate, as two deposit states from which his company sources substantial quantities of aluminum. Redemption rates in New York hovered at around 75 percent through the 1980s.
But it was a procedural loophole—permitting redemption without proof of purchase—that spawned New York’s army of canners. Although redeeming a container for another person’s deposit is technically illegal in New York, the state’s rate of beer consumption (fourth in the nation for beer shipments alone) makes the accuracy of redemptions a nightmare to verify. Legally speaking, we’re talking about canners committing fraud at the most miniscule levels. Canners implicitly misrepresent themselves as other human beings to gain access to small denominations of currency; it’s an issue of law enforcement faced by all deposit states. For example, in 2011, California boasted an incredible redemption rate for aluminum cans—nearly 100 percent. But its redemption rate for certain plastic containers was even more impressive: 104 percent. A+, a triumph…except that this figure was the numeric equivalent of growing a magic beanstalk from magic beans. For that four percent above 100, California had rewarded consumers in real money for counterfeit behavior. Meanwhile, out-of-state canners drove Winnebagos and semi-trailers overstuffed with aluminum cans from Nevada and Arizona, non-deposit states, to steal from California’s $1.1 billion recycling fund. Similarly, the state of Michigan, with a 10-cent deposit famously parodied in an episode of Seinfeld, loses $10 to $13 million a year in fraudulent redemptions, according to the most recent estimates from 2007. In both of these instances, states are looking to catch out-of-state canners transporting materials across state lines, running schemes not unlike Kramer and Newman with their mail truck on Mother’s Day. Those in-state professionals performing the same deeds tend to skate away with the nickels and dimes. Scale and quantity helps the practice of canning thrive into the present day with minimal scrutiny. It’s a profession that fosters informal agreements and unspoken understandings.
“Never a problem, as long as you do it nicely,” said Eugene Gadsden, fifty-seven, the “King of Cans” in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Eugene redeemed his first can in 1983, which made him one of the original canners. “The only way there’s a hassle is if you make a mess,” he explains. Only the most egregious violators tend to be cited with city code, which imposes a $100 to $300 fine for crossing into private property to remove garbage. Eugene’s cousin, Jean Rice, seventy-three, also a canner since the 1980s, enjoys a warm relationship with police in his preferred canning location: parking lot 13B of Yankee Stadium. “The police captain there that’s in charge of the security, he kind of let us stay there,” says Rice. “Because we were kind of protective and a sort of ad hoc extra security.”
In 2005, Picture the Homeless, a grassroots homeless advocacy organization, estimated that New York City’s 1,000 canners were redeeming 12.7 percent of all beverage containers out of the city’s population of 8.1 million people. Such a figure, though hardly scientific, had astounding implications. Of New York City’s 8,099,000 non-canning residents in the year 2005, it would take 1.2 million people to replicate the same results as 1,000 canners. Comparatively, each canner on the street returned containers at 1,200 times the rate of the average New Yorker. These professionals stood like recycling giants among recycling ants, which made sense because the average New Yorker didn’t recycle as an occupation. Yet, with the deflating value of a nickel in consumer purchasing power, redemption rates in New York State fell to record lows in the early 2000s. These lower redemption rates further supported the refrain of bottle bill critics: The average consumer rarely makes use of this program. Canners, a tiny population of self-taught and self-trained recyclers, could only do so much to buoy the numbers.
Even so, statewide redemption rates for aluminum cans in 2004 (roughly 70 percent) far outpaced New York City’s curbside recycling rate for aluminum cans (roughly 22 percent). But here’s where we enter into a strange realm of recycling statistics, a virtual Oz of obscure measurements: capture rates, diversion rates, redemption rates, container types, and container contents, each of which somehow talk about recycling without talking about all of it. Any comparison between our state and local systems remains inexact because state statistics account for the number of containers collected, while city statistics account for the weight of containers collected. Neither program is eager to translate or record their numbers to provide a proper juxtaposition. “State law and the city curbside recycling program compete, essentially, for the same materials,” says MacBride. “So, they don’t work with each other at all. They’re redundant, to a certain degree.” It is akin to the Lollipop Guild refusing to sing in tune with the Lullaby League. Such a straight-on comparison would facilitate the keeping of score for which system recycles its materials most effectively. Beyond that, no national set of standards exists for the reporting of recycling data across industries, states and localities. The figures are mishmash, and there is no Rosetta Stone.
In 2012, Ron Gonen, a Columbia Business School professor who looks like he should be handing out roses on The Bachelor, was appointed New York City’s first recycling czar. He advocated for doubling the city’s recycling rate to 30 percent. But he was moot on how this increase would affect canners and was unavailable for comment despite repeated requests from July 2012 until May 2014, when he resigned to co-found a $100 million private recycling fund. “The larger question of how to get to 30 percent isn’t going to be made or broken by the deposit,” says MacBride, as raising the rate would require a change in citywide habits for recycling not just beverage containers but everything, including heavier items like steel appliances. According to the 2004—2005 NYC Waste Characterization Study—a study used to finalize a twenty-year exclusive contract with the city’s scrap vendor—if every New Yorker recycles every scrap of material perfectly every time, the city’s recycling rate would rise to just 36 percent. Plainly, curbside recycling has its limits.
By the mid-2000s, an international consensus was building, driven by more than thirty years of container deposit data: U.S. deposit laws needed an upgrade. A 2004 survey of 800 registered New York voters by Environmental Advocates of New York found that 70 percent supported an expansion of deposit law, and eighty percent agreed “strongly” or “somewhat” that curbside recycling alone wasn’t enough to control litter. California had expanded its deposit law in 2000, while Germany and Hawaii had implemented their first deposit laws in 2005. In Scandinavian nations like Norway, where deposit amounts topped out at nearly 43 cents per container, even the richest tycoons publicly stated that they recycled their empties—because it was a matter of money. When the New York State assembly moved to expand the bottle bill in 2009, similar legislation was being considered in Connecticut, Oregon, and Alberta, Canada. After nearly a decade of lobbying from organizations like NYPIRG and the New York Farm Bureau, New York passed the “Bigger Better Bottle Law” in April 2009.
The legislation broke what then-Governor David Paterson’s office called “a nine-year logjam” and extended the deposit to include an estimated 3.2 billion water bottles sold annually in New York State. The new bill also mandated that the state retain 80 percent of unclaimed container deposits, a windfall that had previously gone to distributors. Suddenly, bottle and can deposits represented a source of revenue in a time of budget crisis. These deposits, previously held 100 percent by beverage distributors, provided the state with an additional $354 million in revenue between 2009 and 2012—$110 million in 2012 alone. In March 2013, the New York State Assembly passed an additional deposit bill to streamline redemption logistics and increase the number of reverse vending machines at grocery stores.
Since the early-2000s, Eugene Gadsden has been the de facto face of canning in New York City. His stories and insights are featured in at least eight articles, a PBS Now segment, and a forthcoming documentary called Five Cents. “You have to treat it like a regular job,” Gadsden said of canning in a 2006 story in The New York Times. It’s a line of thinking he continues today. “You are your own boss,” he explains. “You work on your own terms. You could go wherever. You decide your income.” Over the years, journalists made a habit of portraying Gadsden as an example of the working poor making it work. Taken in totality, the pieces offered a reassuring glimpse of New York’s social chasms. Gadsden obliged, ever the optimist on screen or in the printed word. When PBS journalists dubbed him the “King of the Cans” in 2007, he latched onto the title and carried it into the streets. He continues to hope that the appellation will provide his life with a sense of notoriety and legacy. That original piece from The New York Times noted the rubber bands that Eugene wore as penance on his left wrist—one for each week he hadn’t smoked crack. As the article began to hint, Eugene is a man of private demons and public talents.
The King of Cans rises from a sidewalk nap in a grey fishing hat. He rolls a cigarette with one hand and grabs a stray can for an ashtray. Gadsden is a tall, lanky man with a youthful face and winsome grin. He smiles like a Pepsi commercial. Canners genuflect where he treads, and I begin to understand why other journalists have pegged him as their main man. His eyes glisten, red and teary. His slow vibe and Southern colloquialisms betray a Charleston upbringing. He speaks confidently but haltingly, with a stutter he’s displayed ever since his mother bowed out of parenting and left him with his grandparents. Hiring managers through the years had assumed by his speech that Eugene didn’t have the brains for the work. Gadsden’s last job for an hourly wage was selling ice cream from a hand truck in 1983. In fact, he first came into contact with New York canners while perusing the streets peddling Bomb Pops and Creamsicles. Canning called to him as a vocation where no one could judge him, where his success depended not on what he said but what he found. “He lives by the rhythms of canning,” says Drew Swope, a community advocate who spent a year on the streets with Gadsden. “He doesn’t wake up and think it’s Wednesday. He wakes up and thinks cans are going to be out on these streets on these days, so that must mean it’s Wednesday.”
Gadsden sat with Sister Ana on the Canners’ Committee of Picture the Homeless, which successfully campaigned in 2005 for the enforcement of redemption laws at grocery chains, with then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. On that same committee, Gadsden helped push Albany to pass the 2009 container deposit expansion law. “He was the first person to organize those communities,” says Swope. “He wanted to be a leader, and he was a leader, in a lot of ways.” Unlike the Pumas or other canners, Gadsden imposes few limitations on his hours of work. He’ll can on Christmas morning. “Every can counts,” he likes to say, tossing the containers into his stolen cart. These ubiquitous, man-made objects have shaped his existence. He remembers when he was six years old, and John Glenn became the first astronaut to eat in space using aluminum tubes. A year later, the Reynolds Metal Company manufactured the first twelve-ounce cans, and Gadsden recalls rushing to a corner store for his first canned soda when they arrived in South Carolina. How like the can is he as a grown man—strong, light and resilient, eternal in his work ethic, overflowing with niceties and yet born of the world’s furnace. Eugene became well known for canning through the evening, working eighteen-hour days, pausing to feast on cheeseburgers, and then resting through the weekends at his brother’s apartment in the Bronx. Weaving his shopping cart through traffic like a fish in a sea of whales, he’ll walk about ten miles per day on his routes through Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square. Between workdays, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., he’ll chain up his cart and sleep outdoors. In his thirty-year career, Eugene taught the craft of canning to more than 500 people. One couldn’t say how many cans he has recycled in his lifetime, but his apprentices have redeemed in the hundreds of millions. If we agree that recycling provides a social benefit, then Gadsden is the Johnny Appleseed of can cleanup. A woman named Nadine is his current protégé. “There’s enough cans out there for everybody,” he insists, picking a can from the bin in a pizza parlor. “The city provides.”
In 2011, Eugene forsook Sure We Can for his old canning grounds at 33rd Street between 11th Avenue and 12th Avenue, near the northern terminus of the High Line. This empty stretch of roadway runs between urban renewal construction and the Javits Center. “I give it ‘bout two more years before we pushed out,” says Eugene, citing a forecasted completion date for the Hudson Yards condominiums. “Then, I might retire, go back to Sure We Can.” In my interviews with Ana, she expressed an eagerness to welcome him back. With the No. 7 subway line scheduled to open a new stop at 34th Street and 11th Avenue, it was difficult to foresee the neighborhood’s newcomers tolerating a tent village. Five days before Christmas 2013, the billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, made a press event out of riding the No. 7 train to within a block of the King of Cans’ domain. “This was a historic ride,” said Bloomberg, a mayor in his final days of office, a man of shrewd calculation who foresaw the extension of the No. 7 train as one of his palpable legacies. A reporter from the New York Daily News noted how the new station was, “eerily free of rats, graffiti, and litter usually so common in subways.” Just down the street was the place that Gadsden considered to be home. There, thousands of afternoons, he’d huddled against a concrete barrier and sorted his collection into neat, symmetrical piles. “People see this cart loaded, stacked up, and be amazed,” he laughs, “They’re like, ‘I never seen so many cans!’” Together with a colony of about thirty canners, he would wait for a private redemption truck, a moving van that he’d arranged to stop here about six times a week. At his peak, Eugene earned $100 per day from cans. Presently, he nabs about $40 to $70. Some of that income funds his crack habit, a perpetual craving that he tries to quell with prayer. When he loses his pipe, the King will puncture a hole in the body one of his cans and use it to clench the crystal—steamrolling the smoke through the can’s wide mouth. “I think he gets overcome by a force that’s bigger than his heart or soul or mind,” says Swope.
Eugene’s daughter, Tasha, was two years old when her father plunged into canning. An irregular but loving presence in her life, Eugene would lose touch with Tasha only to resurface briefly in person or mention her wishfully in news stories. In a 2006 piece for The Columbia Journalist, Eugene said he’d visit Tasha’s house in Harlem to cook her lima beans and chicken. At the time, he hadn’t seen her for five years. It’s as if the eternity of cans warped his internal chronometer. In response to a 2011 news feature celebrating Eugene and Sure We Can’s move to Bushwick, Tasha reached out, posting in the online comments section, “I have been tryin to find my father eugene gadsden for 15 years,” and then leaving her email address. Canning often leaves Eugene depleted. His hands ache from grabbing all that aluminum—jostling items and tying and untying knots in garbage bags to access the precious metal. He describes sleep as a kind of hibernation. “I’m out to the world,” he says. This lifestyle blurs outside reality and often buffers him from family news. When Eugene’s grandmother, Fannie Gadsden, died in Charleston in 1999, he missed her funeral by a week. “That be a whole lotta hurt,” he confesses. When Eugene’s wide smile regresses, he, too, disappears back into the anonymity of canners, a class of people most couldn’t distinguish in a police lineup. “Sometimes, days be long,” he says, “and I’ll be glad when it’s over.” His shopping cart crinkles as he turns a corner. “Then, I start it up again.”
Brewer, retailer, and distributor converge every two years at a loft party on West 22nd street—a fifteen-minute walk from canning central by the Javits Center. Halfway between here and there are the studios of pop artist Jeff Koons, which Gadsden passes many a morning on his way to Chelsea Park to unlock his shopping cart. Called “The Taste of Great Brewers,” this event gives retailers in red badges the opportunity to connect and hang out with brewmasters and sales executives. Union Beer Distributors provide its brewers with the venue, the customers and the means to close the sale through an iPad-app stationed on each of the 112 display tables. To place an order, retailers tap their proximity-sensitive badges to one of the iPads and select the product and quantity of their choice. Orders placed on the day of, Tuesday, November 12, received 10 percent off wholesale from Union Beer Distributors.
Sheehan hosts this soiree for 1,500 of his most influential accounts. It is billed as “the most EXCLUSIVE event of its kind” on the invitation. I acquired a ticket through Sheehan as he walked me out of Union headquarters in Queens. As I stroll through the velvet ropes flanking the Great Brewers entrance, a canner passes me on the other side of the street.
Walking up the grey staircase, I enter into the first of three floors where the cream of craft brewing await to offer tastings: Narragansett, Magic Hat, Samuel Smith, Wurzburger, Hofbrau. Frank Sinatra’s Luck Be A Lady pipes through overhead speakers. Waiters dressed in black rove with silver trays bearing sausage pates and miniature burgers. Blue accent lighting near the front entrance blends with a pink sunset refracting off the windows. Restaurateurs in plaid suits and tight jeans and suspenders and fedoras chat with brewmasters like Jamie Emmerson from Full Sail and Rod Tod from Allagash. A quick, 360-degree turn reveals twenty beards.
Grabbing a souvenir snifter etched with a “GB” for Great Brewers, the name of Union’s website, each guest wanders and mingles across the floorshow. I could pick out the brewers among the crowd. There is something very guerilla about them, something uncontrived and functional in their workman shirts, something very not New York City. They embody a group of craftsmen turned businessmen, their eyes on the world’s largest market. Sheehan stands as the tannest man in the room—dignified in bearing as he weaves among hands in a blue blazer. Even among this Who’s Who in beer, brewmasters for whom he’ll distribute in perpetuity, Sheehan emerges as powerbroker, king of conversations. It’s magic watching him work. His children and grandchildren will inherit this empire of contacts and contracts, an empire that, like the can, will outlive them.
Though most breweries at the event pour their wares out of taps and fine bottles, several differentiate by serving from the can: five on the first floor, four on the second, four on the third. Indeed, breweries like Two Brothers, who serve beer out of several types of containers, relish showing it off. “We’re very strategic about what beer we put where and in what vessel,” says Leo Conaghan, sales rep for Two Brothers, gesturing to the swirl on the can on his SickKick Extra Pale Ale. SideKick came in a can, explains Conaghan, because the light-sealed container preserves taste in the hop-heavy brew, even as it jostled. “SideKick can get to golf courses, campsites, beaches, and wooded festivals and still taste as great as it should.” At the booth for Oskar Blues on the second floor, the Colorado brewery’s entire portfolio glistens in twelve-ounce and tallboy cans. First to distribute craft in a can in 2003, Oskar Blues has never bottled its products. “You could say we started the can beer apocalypse,” says Brendan McLane, Northeast Sales Manager for the brewery. For McLane, the decision made financial and environmental sense. “Better for our world, better for the beer,” he says. His company could ship 100 cases per pallet using aluminum, as opposed to fifty cases per pallet using glass. “We definitely face the bias that swill comes in cans, but that’s what we’re here to prove: it’s what inside the counts.” He pours out the golden suds of a pilsner from a can into my snifter, the liquid glugging, and what I taste goes down smooth and satisfying.
On a booth on the second floor congregates a set of newcomers to New York. Representing Ballast Point—the name an ode to their brewmaster’s love of fishing—this brewery team had ventured in from San Diego. Chris Marin, a sales rep who’d started his career in the Ballast Point warehouse, eagerly shakes hands and pours a canned offering: Big Eye IPA. “We’ve got a real plan for this,” says Marin, who gestures with his hands and tosses his mane of hair. His voice sounds gravelly, good-natured, full of the revelry he sells. “We find the business nerds and match them up to the beer nerds, and it’s magic.” The Big Eye quenches like a memory of something pure, crisp, and cutting, like a sip on a bass trip with my dad in Wisconsin. The current production capacity of the Ballast Point canning machine is thirty-two cans per minute, according to Marin, but the company had just purchased an industrial canner from Dr. Pepper that cranks out 500 cans at the same clip. Expansion into new markets awaits, which meant shaking hands with more distributors like Sheehan.
Marin, who’s journeyed with Ballast Point to its current position among the nation’s top fifty largest craft brewers, still can’t believe that his company has made it to Taste of Great Brewers. They’re stationed only two tables away from Sierra Nevada. Unlike the other tiered systems of the alcohol universe, craft encourages the collapse of pretense. Brewing means brotherhood and sisterhood. Sierra Nevada moves almost a million cases of beer per year, and yet here its people sit as equals next to startups and entrepreneurs. Like so many enthusiasts in the craft scene, Marin idolizes Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder and owner. “Ken Grossman, that’s many hero, man,” says Marin, pointing to Grossman’s photograph above the Sierra Nevada booth. “But he’s so cool about it. It’s not a big deal when you meet him. He’s just a person.”
When a bar for financial traders and Sex and the City people opens across from my building in East Williamsburg, I transplant to Bushwick. There, I walk my Cairn Terrier twice a day to a dog park not two blocks away from Blue Star Beverages. One morning, I decide to check in on the redemption center, maybe thinking I’d run into the Pumas, though I’d seen on Facebook that Manuel had found other work in construction. As I approach, I see that Blue Star had closed this location, perhaps favoring its two mobile redemption centers. In its place is a full service photo-and-film production facility. Renamed LightSpace, the building’s skylights and twenty-eight-foot ceilings serve as visual palettes for set designers and fashion photographers. Vogue, Bentley, and Puma (the shoe company, not the family) have already booked shoots with them. Where models pose in the room billed as “Studio A” once sat crumpled metal that workers shoveled into heaps not ten months earlier. The other world has eaten them all. The wide, cavernous door, once beckoning canners, now gleams shiny and commercial—shut to the world except for brief periods of loading in equipment. I feel lonely standing there: the only person who remembers when this building was a shrine to aluminum. Down a few streets, a “For Sale” sign hangs in front of Sure We Can. A buyer has offered Sister Ana’s landlord $3.9 million for the property, despite its foundations above the L train. I walk away from LightSpace. The Empire State Building towers across the East River, and I feel pride looking at it. I relate to the pharaohs of this world more than I’d like to think. My lifestyle consumes localities. I am a money mouth. I am white and make money, and I move places. Wherever I go in Brooklyn seems to displace something genuine. Everything changes around me, except for the can.
On a random Saturday, Eugene strolls into Sure We Can and puts on a volunteer’s apron. Time has blurred again. He recognizes none of the people bagging cans or working the forklift. Has it been months? The place needs a canner’s touch, he observes, particularly the bottle mountain swallowing a walkway. He sweeps around his feet. For years, he’s clung to the cash value of the only eternity made in a human factory. In the world of cans, Eugene is lord and master, he knows, but so are bigger men like Sheehan. Beer makes royalty of every stratum: the King of Cans, the king of beer distribution, the King of Beers. All this confuses him, and he can’t say if it’s good or bad that he trained all those canners to hold up a pyramid of labor that yielded riches for men he’s never met and whose fortunes didn’t trickle back downwards. Any answer feels too complete, like a child’s answer, a verdict on his life and the whole human business of making tools to make things a little easier. After all, if we created the can, and the can is eternal, then the can reveals us. Eugene saw himself in it. And there were so many cans now that he couldn’t recognize…golden Oskar Blues Pilsner, fish-headed Ballast Point. Perhaps his reign has ended. “He has these moments of self-realization,” explains Swope. “And he’s like, ‘Oh wow, there are people around me that really care about me.’” Like the can, he cycles in and out of darkness, always hopeful that the next redemption will be final.
Ana drops a bag of cans she is carrying, losing her count as she bee-lines for Eugene. “I didn’t know how I was going to be accepted back,” he admits. He looked ravaged. His injured left shoulder, untreated for years, has hardened into a hunch. A cyst protrudes from his forehead. A month before, he’d lost his I.D. and wallet. Yet, he smiles at her with resilience, like the dandelion growing through the cracks in the concrete. Ana just hugs him. It is the hug you save for your lost brother. “Thank you,” she says, to the man who left her alone to run the redemption center. This had been their dream: a home for street canners, for the people who truly had nowhere. Perhaps this will be his moment to mend things. But they both knew he’s had other such opportunities. He needs to email Tasha. Needs sleep. Needs to get to Church of the Holy Apostles for a provisional I.D. But first, he tosses a can in the air. And it seems to freeze there for a second, long enough to consider. He walks back into the world he built.
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