That picture was taken last June. I'm reusing it, because this morning it looked roughly the same and I didn't have my camera, though a fight had already broken out (it was 9AM). I've spent a good deal of time getting to know the intricacies of this most peculiar scenario, particularly taking stock of recent neighborhood efforts to clean up Parkside Avenue and environs, like the efforts to "curb" illegal curbside dumping, the move to calm traffic at the Ocean/Flatbush intersection, our attempts to hold Moses Fried accountable for the disaster at 205, and Rudy on Winthrop's Parkside Project prize. The "canners," as they prefer to be called, aren't just public nuisances of course - they're people - people with as much right to use public spaces as anyone else. But the question remains - is it necessary that the neighborhood tolerate a chaotic, rambunctious and glass-shard laden scene so close to our hometrain and beloved park? In this post, I investigate, and welcome your comments, as always.
I'll start with the human side.
Today I had a great talk with Ali - one of the regulars who return cans and bottles at the Pioneer. It was suggested I speak to him by the Screaming Indian Lady (as another canner called her), who called him "Muslim," which he quickly corrected as Ali. (SIL didn't want to talk with anyone on the record - though in all honesty she's been very friendly to me on the street ever since. She is the self-appointed Mayor of Parkside Canners, but given the unruliness of her subjects, her reign is somewhat ceremonial.)
Ali is in his mid-60s, though he looks younger. He graduated college in the early '70s, and worked for the Post Office for many years. He's the first to admit he was bit wild in his youth, and that might explain his lack of working teeth. He's a very friendly guy, and eager to discuss the inner-workings of his trade. He thinks that more and more people are going into canning as a sideline, because it's "free money." When I pointed out that it looked like hard work to me, he concurred. But "it beats going into an office every day." Indeed.
According to Ali there are plenty of places to bring back your bottles and cans...the supermarkets are best because they can take back big bunches at a time, and tend to be less surly about it. Depending on the day and the streetside recycling schedule, he hits The Associated on Flatbush, the beer distributor on Lefferts at Flatbush, the NSA on Bedford...and many others. He told me there's a place in Queens where they'll pay you by the pound! When you think about it, that makes a heck of a lot more sense when you're talking about large quantities. Unfortunately, most canners don't have SUVs...they'd have to haul their hauls on foot and grocery cart. Interborough, to boot.
Most crucially, I asked what it was about the Pioneer that made it so popular. "Easy," he said. "They have an unlimited returns policy." NOW we're getting somewhere. Turns out that other supermarkets DO place limits. The law is very specific about this:
"[a] dealer may not limit the number of empty beverage containers to be accepted for redemption at the dealers place of business to less than 240 containers per redeemer per day"(NYCRR367.5 (d)).That's all of $12 by the way.
With its unlimited policy, Pioneer has expressly encouraged the canners to bring their big rigs. Perhaps the least respected part of the law, however, has nothing to do with limits. It's this line:
It is illegal to return containers for refund that you did not pay a deposit on in New York State.
Hello everybody! That means the whole dang thing is illegal. Unless the canners in front of the Pioneer are downing thousands of ounces of soda and beer every day...that they paid for themselves.
So while most stores claim to follow the law, posting the required "rights" sign, the most basic aspect of the law is not being followed anyway. Despite the Bottle Bill's stated objective - i.e. getting people to recycle their own bottles and cans - we've created a very bizarre and not very fairly regulated blackmarket economy for glass and tin nickels.
So I talked to the folks at Pioneer to get their take. Hector, who, along with Stanley, is one of the managers, tells me he's no fan of the canners. "It's bad for business" he told me this morning. "I spend all this time policing and cleaning the area, and the Department of Sanitation still ends up giving me tickets." I asked him why they do it - isn't there money it for them? "No! We just HAVE to do it because it's the law." When I told him the law only requires them to take a certain number, and that his boss was making 3 1/2 cents a piece for every returned bottle or can, he seemed to not know what I was talking about. So it looks like I'll need to talk to the store owner after all. Because it would appear that Mr. Pioneer hasn't even told his own captains about the REAL reason for the unlimited policy - cash money.
So there's some grist for the ol' mill. What do y'all think? If you'd prefer to contact me offline, you know where to find me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I've also put in a request for more info from NYPIRG, the Department of Homeless Services, and the organization SURE WE CAN - a group that's working for the humane treatment of canners, and a more equitable way of getting bottle refunds.
Oy. I really crammed my head full of stuff this time.