Years ago, seeking a break in my fledgling writing career, I pitched a story to the local newspaper about a man I’d been watching for a number of years. He appeared homeless, spent most of his time diving into dumpsters and traveled around town on a bicycle.
But the man wasn’t homeless. His name was Zach and he had the most outgoing personality I’d ever seen. Zach had suffered a stroke as a young man, which made vital work skills like reading impossible. However, his personality wasn’t affected by the misfortune.
An elderly man in town saw the same thing in Zach as I did and took him into his home rent-free. Still needing to support himself, Zach made ends meet by recycling aluminum cans and plastic bottles.
He was a consistent presence in my neighborhood. We spoke every day, offering cordial hello and goodbyes, griping about our respective nine-to-fives. Trust me, I noticed the irony.
My job was to investigate how he did this and how much he earned realistically. I learned that recycling, especially in college towns, can earn a dedicated “canner” hundreds of dollars per week.
Zach’s work day was simple.
He took advantage of students propensity to be lazy and willingness to give away empty cans. The football tailgating culture of that particular town ensured that on six Saturday’s per year, hundreds of thousands would arrive with no place to throw away their bottles and cans.
Most of the time, they dropped their can or bottle on the ground and headed for kickoff.
Container deposit laws are designed to combat litter, reduce material costs and provide an economic incentive to clean up. If you’re interested in the side-gig, you’ll have to relocate to California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon or Vermont.
Five cents is the going rate per container in all states except Michigan and California (.10 cents for 24 ounces).
In the week or so I followed Zach around town he worked day and night. He had innate sense where the most cans were discarded and the work ethic to beat others (yes there were competitors).
His day was a constant back and forth where he maximized the payload each trip. The man was on the move and in top condition. He moved at the pace of a tri-athlete, tireless and determined.
I watched him tally weekly receipts at the can-shed topping $350 or 7,000 cans. That’s hard work and more than a weekly check on minimum wage.
He asked that I not print how easy he made extra money canning, less I introduce more competition and less I write that it was easy.
Obviously we’re talking dirty, garbage digging work, labeled by society as desperate. Zach didn’t mind. In fact, seeing the smile on his face with a bag of cans slung over the shoulder made me contemplate the true difficulty of my job.
Did I really have it that bad and exactly what had Zach figured out that I hadn’t?
He loved his job. That was his secret. I learned more from that man than most bosses I’ve had in corporate America.
Postscript: I messed up the newspaper story by trying to inject humor in the piece, not mentioning my affection for the subject. Readers called, wrote, labeled me insensitive. I learned a lot about word choice.