Surviving in New York, 5 Cents at a Time

The life and daily struggle of a 72-year-old can collector
May 24, 2014 Updated: June 10, 2014

NEW YORK—A shard of shattered glass slashes the tip of Yabi Luo’s left ring finger. She grunts, then pauses to examine the droplet of blood that is beginning to emerge from her dusty, stained skin. It does not appear to be a deep cut. There have been worse cuts. She sucks the blood from her finger and resumes her work sorting the sticky bottles and cans that she collects from the trash receptacles of New York City.

Luo is a canner, a person who collects cans, bottles, and other plastics for a five cent deposit. For this 72-year-old illiterate Chinese immigrant, canning is her sole source for survival.

She emigrated to New Jersey with her husband in 1994. They were sponsored by his aunt, who owned a Chinese restaurant in Long Beach Island. Luo was one of the chefs, her specialty was hong shao fish, fish simmered in peanut oil, soy sauce, Chinese red wine, and sugar.

Luo’s husband passed away six years ago; her sister-in-law passed away three years later. The restaurant closed, and Luo was left to fend for herself.

So Luo spends four hours each afternoon sorting and counting the cans she collected from various garbage bins throughout Bushwick and Bedstuy. She wears royal blue arm warmers to protect the sleeves of her sweatshirt from grime, a jade bracelet to protect her soul from evil spirits. 

She and four siblings grew up on a fish farm on the coast of rural Shanghai. Their father died when she was 14. She speaks broken mandarin, tidbits of English, and never attended elementary school.

She has one son living in the U.S, and two in China. But they have their own wives, children, and money worries. Her son who lives in New York is conscientiously saving to bring his wife over from China. Luo refuses to burden them.

Yet where can a 72-year-old Chinese woman with limited English proficiency and no education go at a time when the American economy is languidly recovering from a recession? China would be ideal, but there is no pension for rural retirees.

New York City, her Chinese friends told her. It’s one city with a lot of trash.

Bill of Bottles

In 1983, New York became one of the 10 states to enact the container-deposit legislation. It requires customers to pay a 5-cent refundable deposit on each beer, soda, and water container they buy in New York. The deposit goes to beverage distributors, who returns the deposit if the customer chooses to recycle its products at a supermarket, drugstore, or another business registered as a redemption center. The distributor then recycles the cans, plastics and glasses. But consumers often don’t go out of their way to recycle in this form; hence, an informal economy is born.

Many homeless New Yorkers, and others living on the margin, make a living from redeeming the deposits of thrown away bottles and cans. And it’s not easy. Canners like Luo can wait up to four hours in line at a supermarket, which legally restricts them to redeem a maximum of $12 worth of cans per visit.

The bottle legislation creates a dilemma for supermarkets for some canners are drug addicts and some have diseases. Sometimes, they also cause scenes.

“We just had a situation just a few moments ago,” says Gloria Curiel, 33, a Gristedes supermarket manager. “A lady canner was yelling and saying she was going to call consumer affairs.”

There are more than 100 canners who come to redeem their recyclables each day at the Gristedes in Chelsea. Canners are not the only ones using the redemption machine, it is open for the public. “You can see why the machine fills up fast,” Curiel says.

Usually it’s not a problem, but on some nights employees call in sick and they are short on staff. On those occasions, the machine may remain full for the evening.

That is why in 2007 a Roman Catholic nun and a former canner decided to create a non-profit redemption center dedicated solely to the redemption of cans.

Sure We Can

On the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, optimistic graffiti deck the metal garage doors that stretch across the entrance of this redemption center: a dolphin, fantastical animals, and a woodpecker pecking at a tree while speaking through a bubble speech that read “Sure We Can.”

Behind the metal garage doors, the Sure We Can redemption center consists of a series of trailers that is the humble abode to hens who fertilize a community garden for the canners. Scanty, barren trees grow from fertilizer amassed in car tires painted sky blue and pink; festive-colored cans hang from its branches like Christmas lights.

Sure We Can is the only licensed, non-profit redemption center in the city. Its sole business is to facilitate the redemption of cans and bottles. It was founded by the destitute to help the destitute in 2007. Canners receive extra cash for sorting their own bottles and cans and can redeem an unlimited number of recyclables. Most important, canners are sure they can get their full five cents for a can, while pick-up redemption trucks often cheat them to four cents.

The center was founded by Eugene Gadsden, a former canner turned community activist, and Ana Martinez de Luco, a Roman Catholic nun.

De Luco came from Spain to New York in 2004 to work for the UN Civil Society. In New York, she had an enlightenment that she should to do more for the poor from the micro rather than the macro. She chose to live on the streets in 2005, where she met Gadsden.

They decided to create a redemption center that could make canning a little easier. De Luco gathered up her contacts from the UN—Florence Erb and Douglas Erb—and a Wall Street broker named Joseph Mula to form a board. Over pizza, they figured out the business side of things.

Sure We Can set the precedence for a non-profit model of redemption centers during a time when many major business-registered redemption centers have closed due to gentrification. According to a report by Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization founded by homeless people, some crucial redemption centers below 125th Street in Manhattan have closed in recent years. As a result, canners must turn to smaller stores and further supermarkets to cash their recyclables, where there are often longer waits and full machines.

Canners  have the option of going to roughly 282 recycling centers in Queens, 103 centers in Brooklyn, and 13 in Manhattan. But at Sure We Can, there is a community garden to feed hungry canners and free English and computer lessons to help improve their job qualifications.

An Invisible Community

De Luco, 59, has vivid black eyebrows and a head of short, graying hair. She has worked tirelessly to build a community for canners. She is at the redemption center even when she has the flu. Her English is excellent, but sometimes, she is so fatigued that she switches to Spanish mid-sentence without realizing.

She organizes events at the center, like a cookout to celebrate Earth Day last month. Around fifty people attended, including a NY1 journalist who is producing a documentary about canners. He brought his wife, they made pasta fresh on the spot.

De Luco implores Luo to join their feast, but Luo modestly declines. She does not want to stop working.

The rims of her irises are beginning to match her gray hair. Her thin lips are fixed in a frown. Her work clothes consist of a faded military green Boar’s Head apron, a plaid vest, and a burgundy hooded sweatshirt. Every now and then, she finds a semi-full soda can that leaks. She steps aside to pour it away from her precious pile. Her face contorts, unconsciously, into a grimace while she pours the old soda.

She is hungry and considers joining the cookout, but decides against it. Luo does not feel comfortable eating western food. She thinks of the red wine fish she has sitting at home, an apartment on Flushing Avenue where a friend is letting her live pro bono.

Luo has no cell phone, no computer, and a sparse selection of clothes. If she needs to get in touch with one of her sons, she uses her friend’s son’s phone. Nonetheless she indulges in cooking, her sole luxury. She has cooking utensils. She has red wine. And she pays for her groceries herself.  Luo cannot access food stamps because she does not have a formal address. The apartment she is staying in is already registered for someone else’s food stamps.

But Luo does not represent the phenomenon of canning; there are many canners who, unlike Luo, have other full time jobs.

Alberto Miguel, 50, is a canner by day, and an indoor soccer referee for New York City schools by night. He emigrated from Ecuador in 1980. He and his wife have been canning for the past year and a half. Through canning, they bring in a little extra support for the perennial needs of their three children and seven grandchildren.

Wen, who does not want to give his first name, is a canner who lives in a studio in Manhattan’s Chinatown with his wife and their two adult children. He was a technician in China, but since he speaks limited English he has not been able to find a job in that sector. He currently works in maintenance at a mattress store in Manhattan.

Then, there are those who have passed their primes  and  yearn to feel useful.

Sixty-eight-year-old Wang, who also does not want to give her first name, collects cans roughly twice a week. Her hair is dyed black and embellished with a curly perm. Wang’s granddaughter, who will be attending the Fashion Institute of Technology this fall, is the one who picked out Wang’s stylish black pea coat. They live in  Manhattan’s Chinatown and whenever Wang is caught rummaging for cans, her son scolds her.

“I used to think it was embarrassing too. We would see her going through other people’s trash around town,” says Angela, her granddaughter. “But now I think she’s doing it, well, just to do something. It has to do with her age. There’s not much she can do, she wants to feel productive. ”

Wearing jeans, a black t-shirt, and chipped hot pink nail polish, Wang’s granddaughter follows her awkwardly around the Sure We Can Earth Day cookout. Her parents do not know she is there.

It is easy to assume, but difficult to determine the precise demographics of canners. The only data on canners that are easily accessible is a survey conducted by Picture the Homeless in 2005.

“Unfortunately, this is an issue where there aren’t a ton of folks doing work on their behalf,” says Sam Miller, the communications director for Picture the Homeless. “This may be the most accurate data that exists, even though it’s outdated.”

The National Employment Law Project, a non-profit research organization that advocates for workers’ rights, has never dealt with canners because they fall under an informal sector.

The Chinese Progressive Association, a non-profit founded to raise living and working standards for New York’s Chinese community, has never spoken with canners, according to its executive director Mae Lee.

Neither labor professors, shadow economy experts, nor sociologists who specialize in Chinese Americans, have conducted studies on the phenomenon of canning.

According to employees at Sure We Can, a large number of canners are elderly Chinese immigrants. Half of the regular canners at Sure We Can are Chinese, the other half are mostly Hispanic. “Since more redemption centers have opened, the Chinese have dispersed. But we still have about 30 Chinese regulars now,” de Luco says.

Employees of the redemption center say Luo is one of the hardest working canners they have seen.

“All the Chinese people work very hard here, but she’s the hardest worker, she’s always here,” de Luco says. Luo wakes up at six a.m to collect cans, seven days a week.

De Luco would like Sure We Can to be closed on Sunday’s. But since Luo pestered de Luco so ardently to keep it open, she was given her own storage space that she could access on Sunday’s. “That’s why we have a storage room for her,” de Luco says.“So she can still keep working even when we’re not open.”

In a receding section of the redemption center, there are 15 stalls for the center’s most frequent canners.

Luo has five bulging bags of cans and bottles in her storage for rainy days that are not good for collecting but good for sorting. At this redemption center on the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick, Rou finds the closest thing she can to a sense of community and a solution to a missing social safety net for the rural Chinese elderly.

White rice and vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil are placed on a side table for those who need it; free English and computer classes are offered on Saturday’s. There are five canners who attend the English class regularly, Luo is not one of them.

Luo feels it is pointless to learn English; no one hires seniors. It is enough to know how to say numbers and beverage brands.

“One hundred eight, Heineken!” she yelled,  “Poland Spring, two hundred sixteen!” An employee glances at her bags and jots down her numbers for the day. They take her word. She is precise and does not round up. Luo tracks her progress by scribbling numbers on her hands and over the walls of the storage corridor in a blue permanent marker.

When Luo forages through the garbage in the streets of Brooklyn, she does not take every bottle and can she sees.

She must know which distributor the brand falls under, otherwise it could be useless. It’s a game of experience and memorization. Minute Maid, Fanta, Evian, fall under the brand of Coca-Cola. Most beer brands belong to Manhattan Beer –Corona-, Union Beer –Budweiser and Phoenix Beverages –Heineken-. Water bottles are often problematic for redemption centers. There are so many brands, it is hard to tell which distributor is responsible for picking them up.

As Luo sorts her bag of cans back at the redemption center, she comes across an unrecognized brand that snuck into the pile. Tsingtao Beer. “Loo-yi!” she yells.

A man by the name of Louis rushes over.

“What this? Heineken?”


Mammoth compilations of bags of cans and bottles are piled throughout the center. Cases and cases of beer bottles are stacked atop one another. And everything, everything is meticulously sorted by brand.

A Distributor’s Dilemma

Sometimes, distributors do not come to pick up and recycle its redeemed cans and bottles.

In March, 600 bags of sorted and redeemed beer cans and 60 pallets of glass bottles at in Sure We Can waiting for the Manhattan Beer Distributors. Distributors are legally obliged to pick up their empties from redemption centers. Many come twice a month, and some come every week due to the large volume of recyclables the center receives.

But the Manhattan Beer Distributors recently closed a branch in Brooklyn and did not come in February or March, which meant that the staff at SWC  have to wait longer for their salary and pay canners out of their own pocket.

De Luco has been frantically calling the company, and received no response for the first two months. If they didn’t come, those cans and bottles would cost the center roughly$16,000.

“They have been on time each month for six years, I know it must be because they are struggling,” she says.

The Manhattan Beer Distributors finally came at the end of April, with three trailers. Yet within a week, the center finds itself with 300 bags waiting for the Manhattan Beer Distributors again.

Money Talk

The door shuts and subdues the clamor of cans and bottles. Luo walks up to the accountant and sighs. She hands over her ticket and speaks loudly in Chinese to Evelyn Ruez, 40, an El Salvadorian refugee who does not understand Chinese.

“I really don’t know how we make it through each day,” says Ruez, Sure We Can’s accountant. “It’s all in the hand gesturing.”

A case of  sorted glass means $1.50, but if a canner uses the redemption center’s case, they receive $1.40. A bag of 40, 2 liter plastic bottles, translates to $2.50. A bag of 240, 12 oz cans equates to $14.50.

The center exchanges $1,000 to $2,000 a day for cans and bottles —depending on the weather and if it is nearing a recycling day.

Luo takes her cash and goes back outside to sweep her spot by the storage rooms. No one asked her to clean up after herself but she does it anyway.

Luo returns to the accounting room 10 minutes later. As usual, she cries “shen jing bing”(mentally ill) at a Hispanic man resting in the corner. It’s a strange way to make friends, but it works.

He does not understand her, he laughs. And then Luo, who only speaks a handful of English words, translates for herself. “Loco!” she yells, poking his head with her finger. Laughter erupts throughout the room. Luo goes on speaking in Chinese.

“She’s a funny, lovable lady,” de Luco says. “The way she expresses herself is through shouting.”

“Some people don’t understand and think she’s angry, but really she just has a lot of love,” de Luco says. Her shouting seems to be the result of an unusual excess of energy. When sorting, she flings useless bottle caps with a terrifying strength.

Luo made $60 that day. Normally she makes $80, Ruez says. She makes the most money out of all the canners there.

But Luo is working slower because she recently pulled a muscle on her back, which causes a cutting sensation each time she bends over to pick cans.

China, a Distant Past and Future

Luo’s rival, Wang, thinks she’s crazy.

Wang has a storage room, too, because she paid for it. Luo thinks one shouldn’t can if one doesn’t have to. Wang did not go to the center for the last few weeks because she was on vacation in China. Upon her return, Luo greets her with a verbal fight.

Wang calmly remarks that Luo is mentally ill and smiles a benign smile infused with an air of superiority. “You don’t speak clearly, I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Wang says.

Luo retaliates by calling Wang an illegal immigrant, a claim that is ungrounded. She only knows that Wang is from Fujian, a province in southeast China that has a reputation for illegal emigration.

“She is from Fujian, I am from Shanghai, how dare she say I can’t speak properly,” Luo mumbles after Wang walks away.

The truth is Luo would like to go back to China, too. But rural Chinese workers like Luo do not receive a retirement pension from the Chinese government.

Long-term urban Chinese workers receive substantial retirement pensions. But elderly rural citizens generally receive no assistance from the Chinese government, according to a National Research Council of the National Academies report called “Aging In Asia.” The majority of China’s rural seniors must rely on financial support from their children. In an extreme case, the Associated Press reported an incident where a mother sued her children in China for neglecting her in her old age.

The reason why Luo works so hard everyday at the redemption center is so that she could perhaps one day save enough to retire in China.

“Mother, mother come back,” her two sons in China would say when she sporadically calls them on her landlord’s cell phone.

They tell her that they would help support her. But Luo knows better than to listen to them; they should be saving for their own retirements and school for their children.

“Life is hard no matter where you are, China or America,” she says. “But at least I can buy more in China with one U.S dollar.”

She has saved a minimal amount enough for her retirement. But she gets up each day to collect cans anyway, knowing not when the last day will be. Perhaps it will be the day when her back finally gives out; perhaps it will be the day when another part of her body disintegrates from old age. Whichever day it is, the more she saves, the better.

Plus, it’s not so bad to live in New York.

“Do I feel lonely?” she says. “No, I wouldn’t say that I am, these westerners have been very kind.”