Informal Recyclers Fight for Survival in Gentrifying Brooklyn

A NYC not-for-profit canning center faces eviction, hoping to preserve a key source of income and community for its members. 

April 16, 2020

Exterior of Sure We Can, Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Carlos Rivera)

Despite temperatures that dipped below freezing on a Saturday in early February, a group of canners—those who collect, sort, and redeem deposit-based containers for a living—huddled at New York City’s only not-for-profit redemption center, Sure We Can. They were gathered to process unimaginable news: After ten years at its current site, the center is facing eviction. Property values have skyrocketed in recent years, and the owners want to sell to the highest bidder.

“What’s going to happen to a lot of us?” asked Chicago, a canner and board member of the organization. “I live a great distance from [another redemption center]...but it’s nothing like this one where you interact with each other, exchange, help each other out. The camaraderie is not there. I just don’t believe it. It hurts. It makes me want to fight.”

Founded in 2007 by canners experiencing chronic homelessness, Sure We Can has long served this informal community. More than 800 canners make their way to Sure We Can each year from Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Unlike for-profit redemption centers, Sure We Can is dedicated to providing canners a work environment that recognizes their dignity. There are restrooms, a handwashing station, and a roof to work under. Staff members are welcoming, workshops and celebrations bring the community of canners together beyond their daily work, and donated food and clothes are an added benefit.

The work is a vital source of income for many struggling in one of the 10 most expensive cities in the world. On average, a canner at Sure We Can earned at least $1,000 last year, critically supplementing social security income, public assistance, or subsistence earnings. Moreover, canners play an integral environmental and economic role in the city’s waste management system: Canners redeemed over 12 million cans at this organization alone in 2019, diverting hundreds of tons of renewable materials from area landfills at no cost to New York City.

But Sure We Can is more than just a place to redeem bottles and cans for a nickel apiece. It is a social hub that offers support and camaraderie for canners, who are stigmatized and experience higher degrees of social isolation due to advanced age, homelessness, mental illness, and other issues.

Sure We Can’s impending eviction underscores troubling trends in urban areas from Brooklyn to Mexico City to Buenos Aires: Urban restructuring threatens displacement of socially and economically marginalized populations and the organizations that support them.

Canning, an Important Livelihood in NYC and Globally

Recovering discarded materials for reuse and recycling is among the world’s oldest professions. In low and middle-income countries alone, an estimated 15 million people work in informal recycling, an umbrella term that includes waste pickers, recyclers, rag pickers, scavengers, and canners. Their marginal existence calls attention to myriad contemporary urban challenges: social exclusion, economic precarity, and inadequate solid waste and environmental management.

Since 1982, the New York State “Bottle Bill” has mandated that qualifying beverage containers purchased in the state require a five cent deposit. Consumers can then redeem their deposit at the retailer or a redemption center. Beverage distributors, such as PepsiCo or Union Beer, pick up redeemed containers and reimburse for the deposit and a 3.5-cent handling fee. Across New York state, residents and canners recycled 5.1 billion plastic, aluminum, and glass containers in 2016, generating $433.5 million for the state economy.

In New York City, as many as 8,000 people regularly support themselves by canning. Although canners are a diverse community, the vast majority live below the poverty line and represent traditionally marginalized groups: racial minorities, immigrants, those with disabilities, public housing residents, the homeless, and those lacking English and digital literacy. Among canners at Sure We Can, approximately 25 percent are over the age of 60, 7 percent are physically disabled, and 5 percent experience chronic homelessness. Furthermore, canners are overwhelmingly immigrants. About 75 percent of canners at Sure We Can were born outside the United States, with 54 percent of all canners identifying as Hispanic/Latinx.

Elderly canners sorting bottles for redemption at Sure We Can (Photo by Carlos Rivera)

Despite their positive economic and environmental contributions, canners are marginalized. In New York, they carry out their work in a gray area of the law because of New York City Sanitation Department (DSNY) rules articulating their rights to discarded materials. Although some officials and private corporations view canners as villians robbing the city of valuable recyclables, prosecuting canners is rare. At present, NYC officials do not formally recognize the rights of canners by mandating safe and secure access to waste receptacles, unlike in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina, contributing to their vulnerability.

Gentrification Further Marginalizes Vulnerable Communities

Increasingly, canners exist in the shadows of luxury condo buildings. New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, has experienced rapid urban investment in recent decades. In many neighborhoods, luxury condos cater to the affluent. AirBnB guests, hip cafes, and trendy restaurants outnumber bodegas and mom-and-pop stores.

Gentrification has drastically changed Williamsburg, the neighborhood where Sure We Can is located and considered New York’s “capital for young hipsters.” From 2000 to 2018, median rent doubled and median sales price for housing in Williamsburg increased five-fold while the percentage of Hispanic residents decreased by forty percent.

Neighboring Bushwick, a working-class, Latinx majority neighborhood that rapidly became a mecca of street art, bars, and music venues, tells a similar tale over the same time period: median rent nearly doubled, median sales price for housing tripled, and the percent of residents identifying as Hispanic fell from 67 percent to 53 percent. Meanwhile, the percent of the white population increased from 3 percent to 22 percent. Not surprisingly, a separate analysis found that Williamsburg (1st) and Bushwick (4th) are among the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in all of NYC.

Gentrification’s impacts are varied and difficult to capture. Last year, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs surveyed residents of Bushwick. The report concluded that key intangible issues included “cultural erasure, loss of self-determination, and a sense of belonging.” Despite the findings, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration rejected community members’ proposed plan to limit housing expansion that has quickly and radically transformed other neighborhoods, including Williamsburg.

The study also highlighted several negative economic impacts of gentrification—chiefly affordability of housing and space for small businesses and cultural organizations. Robert Camacho, who has lived in Bushwick for 57 years, lamented,  “We, the residents, changed the neighborhood and made it safe through community policing, arts, culture, and now we are not able to afford to stay on and reap the benefits.”

For canners, gentrification is both a boon and a detriment. Reyna, who cans every day of the week because it is her family’s sole source of income, points out that some of the new bars in Williamsburg have been very supportive. She has standing agreements to pick up containers from them several nights a week. For her and other canners who have forged connections with the owners and managers of these newer establishments, commercial growth due to gentrification is beneficial.

On the other hand, stable and local familial and friend networks are key for many canners because they are reliable sources of redeemables. As Ned pointed out, “My family collects cans for me—different houses do as well. They just call and tell me to come by to pick them up.”

One couple, Sarah and Sam, who have canned together in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg for over 20 years, are not only helped by neighbors who “bring us bags” but also help other neighbors in need. For instance, a young single mother in their building who doesn’t have time to go to the redemption center regularly relies on Sarah and Sam to redeem the cans she collects. As housing prices rise and neighbors are forced to move out of the neighborhood, fragile forms of mutual aid are disrupted. Moreover, canners must travel further each day and do more direct collection from trash containers. Collection by hand from garbage bins and bags increases health risks for canners.

If Sure We Can closes, the local canner community will fracture and there will be one less redemption center in a neighborhood where many canners have regular collection routes. Several other centers located in Williamsburg and Bushwick have closed their doors in the last year due to rising rents, bringing the number of dedicated redemption center to fewer than 40 for-profit redemption centers across all the boroughs.

Social service organizations are not immune to gentrification. Now, perhaps more than ever, social services are needed because gentrification amplifies the erasure of low-income populations from the urban landscape. Across the East River in Manhattan, Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of the housing nonprofit Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), said, “Our neighborhood is so gentrified that they make us have to prove our case for the low-income residents. There were times when I’d go into spaces and I’d [share] our goals and they’d ask, ‘Are there still poor people?’”

As residents experience greater economic and social insecurity as a result of rapid gentrification, Los Sures, a social service organization in Williamsburg, has expanded its mission. Founded in the 1970s to provide anti-eviction assistance to Latinx residents, today it offers an array of programs, including managing and developing affordable housing, providing resources and a recreational space for seniors, and operating a food pantry and community garden.

Commercial rent, like residential rent, is also on the rise, with some areas experiencing precipitous increases. Rent increases limit organizations’ ability to provide services to vulnerable community members, which further inhibits residents’ ability to cope with gentrification.

Canners and Community Organizations Fight Back

Beginning in the 1980s, waste pickers have had success in political organizing at the local, national, and international levels to secure legal rights as workers and integration into municipal waste management infrastructures. Waste picker organizations in Colombia and Brazil are among the oldest and most successful in improving their social and economic condition.

Canners in New York City are learning strategies from other waste pickers through Sure We Can’s membership in the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. Following a 2019 workshop co-led by Sure We Can and other Global Alliance members, a dozen canners formed the Canner Advocacy Task Force (CATF). The purpose of CATF is to build leadership capacity among canners so that they can directly advocate for policies that improve their working conditions, including an expansion of the Bottle Bill and the removal of DSNY restrictions on public access to waste containers. For example, at a NY City Council budget hearing in March, Pierre—a jazz musician, long-time canner, and member of the SWC board—testified before city politicians about why canning is important for low-income New Yorkers. He emphasized intergenerational support among immigrant canners: “You have immigrants who are not on welfare. You have the Chinese, the Mexicans. These people are geniuses...They take the money and they invest it in their families and children...These are not all homeless people. These are immigrants who are laying the foundation for the next generation.”

A representative from a waste picker collective in Paris and member of the Global Alliance leads a workshop with canners at Sure We Can, September 2019 (Photo by Taylor Cass Talbott)

Collective organization against gentrification is key. At an environmental justice panel in March, Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents parts of Williamsburg and Bushwick, offered a view that was encouraging to social and environmental justice advocates in the room: “Some elected officials are really worried about the pushback from communities. Organizing has worked really has slowed down development.”

For instance, at the same panel and mere days after a judge ruled against the NYC’s City Planning Commission’s approval of plans to build several luxury “mega-towers” in her neighborhood, Reyes, the Manhattan-based community organizer, remained optimistic about efforts to combat gentrification. “And I think what we have on our side right now is that people are beginning to wake up for many reasons...they’re beginning to see that when the community stands up, you can win. And, they’re beginning to see the disparity and how there is inequity. We still have a long ways to go, but it is up to us.” 

With the help of canners, Sure We Can refuses to back down from the threat of eviction, even in the face of the unfolding Covid-19 crisis. As many other redemption centers closed in recent weeks because the Bottle Bill is temporarily suspended, Sure We Can remains open to make sure that canners have a place to redeem containers. People who are new to canning have appeared at the center, feeling the pinch from lost income and in search of a way to make extra money during the crisis. An online petition to prevent the eviction has generated wide-ranging support, and the organization continues to meet with elected officials to explore their options, including purchasing the lot. For an organization like Sure We Can, fighting eviction is part of a bigger fight for the right of poor residents to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods like Bushwick and Williamsburg.

Canners and supporters marching in the 2019 Climate Strike, NYC (Photo by Christine Hegel)

Chris Hartmann is Assistant Professor of Public Health at SUNY Old Westbury. His research interests include social medicine, urban health, and environmental justice in Latin America and the U.S. Chris is a board member of Sure We Can.

Christine Hegel is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western Connecticut State University. Her research interests include economic and legal anthropology with a focus on precarious labor, value transformation, and rights in urban U.S. and Egypt. Christine is a board member of Sure We Can.

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