A gathering force
In the grip of recession, people who once tossed bottles and cans are turning empties into household funds at redemption centers
It's 30 degrees and windy, and Angel Morales is tired. For more than four hours he's been wheeling his shopping basket through the back streets of Salem and Peabody, looking for redeemable cans and bottles. After walking about 10 miles, he counts out 300 containers and places them on a counter in a chilly bottle-and-can redemption center in Peabody.
"I do this just to put food on the table," says Morales, 64, who worked as a fisherman for 37 years on the North Shore but can't work on boats anymore because of a bad back. For more than a year he's followed this canning route three days a week, collecting enough empties to earn about $35 a day.
"I only get $700 a month from Social Security and I can't live on it. With the economy the way it is what can you do with $700?" says Morales, who lives in a small apartment in Salem.
Can collecting, or "bottle fishing" - in order to redeem 5 cents an empty - has long been seen as a cultural divide between upper and lower class. But with the economy in a nose dive and unemployment in the state climbing to 5.5 percent, more and more people are returning their empty cans and bottles, while others have taken to the streets in search of empties.
"It's just the consumer being more frugal. Why throw something away that will give you some cash?" said professor Dorothy Siden, chairwoman of the department of economics at Salem State College.
Every year since 1998, consumers have purchased about 2 billion redeemable cans and bottles in the state. During that time, the rate of return has been dropping - from 72.4 percent in 1998 to 65.8 percent in 2007. But retailers who own liquor stores and redemption centers say they're seeing new faces and increased returns. Also, more organizations have found that returning empties brings revenue.
"I've seen an increase of 10 percent over the last year. People don't have the money they used to have," said Chris Palazola, who owns Chrispy's Liquors in Beverly. "I see all walks of life - professionals right down to the homeless. Now, the working class are the new people who are bringing them in."
Palazola also partnered with a school charity this year and is matching every can and bottle that's being donated for a science field trip at the city's middle school.
Just a few blocks away, Mike Kessel sorted through a mountain of cans at Beverly Bottle & Can Return. "Business is up at least 10 percent," said Kessel, who has owned the redemption center since 2001. "The economy is the number one reason why people are coming in. People are watching their nickels. I'm seeing more retirees, and unemployed, and young families coming in with their children."
Kessel's warehouse smells like beer, and people carry in large plastic bags and place their empties on a counter as workers sort cans and bottles in large bins according to manufacturer. For hours every day, the echo of aluminum clashing creates a monotonous thwacking sound.
Meanwhile, people like Michael Howard and Vicki O'Brien, both of Beverly, stood in line waiting to exchange their empties for dollars.
Howard said he's new to recycling, and usually gets about $6 from his collection - just enough to put a few gallons of gas into his car. "I lost my job a couple of years ago and the job I have now pays one-half of what I used to make, so this helps out," said Howard.
O'Brien, who works as a sales clerk at a department store at a mall, said the few dollars she collects will go toward feeding her children. "I was never really into it but I've got four kids," she said.
Outside, Eli DiPaolo toted a bag with 150 cans. "It's lunch money for my grandchildren," said DiPaolo, 82, a retired welder from Beverly who remembers eating at soup kitchens as a child during the Depression.
In Lynn, Thy Vorn, manager of J & K Redemption, said the downturn in the economy has brought fewer returns from restaurants and more new customers - like retirees and blue-collar workers. "There's a lot of new people bringing in less amounts," said Vorn.
A year ago Cheryl DiVecchia would throw out her plastic soda bottles. But everything from high gas prices and electric bills to increased food costs made her change her mind about saving bottles.
"In the past I wouldn't save them, but times are really tight," said DiVecchia, who brings her bottles to J & K twice a month. She said the money she gets, about $16 a month, goes toward food. "I'm working two jobs to pay bills. I'm almost on a third job."
In Salem, Ken Sawicki says he's an old pro at collecting. Homeless for several years, he's on his bike at 5 each weekday morning following the same route the trash truck takes several hours later. He combs bags and recycle bins for empties, and uses the money to help pay to keep his belongings in storage.
Sawicki said in recent months he's faced more and more competition - from other homeless collectors to "professionals" with vans who trawl the streets in the early-morning hours on trash days. Sawicki said he prefers cans over bottles, and places them in bags that hang over his bike. "Cans are very light. They're smaller, and you can fit in more per square foot," he said.
Steven Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.