How New Yorkers make up to $1K a day by collecting cans off the streets
September 17, 2022 11:01am
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On a recent Wednesday evening, the blue-tinted plastic-bags loaded with empty cans and drained bottles look like a bunch of garbage to passers-by on the corner of Riverside Drive and West 89th Street. But to a group of family members from Queens, headed up by Jeanett Pilatacsi, they symbolize a livelihood.
Each bag is filled with about 200 discarded beverage containers — valued at five cents apiece when redeemed at an Elmsford, NY recycling center. Bit-by-bit, all of that aluminum and plastic provides an income for the Pilatacsi clan.
On the most profitable days, ambitious canners can accumulate 100 blue bags of returnables, which adds up to $1,000 in profits.
The Pilatacsis are not alone. According to Ryan Castalia, executive director of the non-profit Sure We Can redemption center, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 New Yorkers make money by collecting cans, bottles and plastic containers, and returning them to outlets for refunds. Of those, some 100 earn livelihoods through canning. Last month, it was reported that millionaire landlord Lisa Fiekowsky is known for collecting cans and bottles in her Brooklyn neighborhood and redeeming them.
Ray del Carmen, who lives in Brooklyn and now works as a manager at Sure We Can, said the savviest can-collectors know that some days are more profitable than others. Though his full-time canning days are behind him — he still helps out his girlfriend who collects cans for a living — he remembers one holiday most fondly.
“St. Patrick’s Day was the best day,” Del Carmen told The Post. “Everyone starts drinking early. So, from 2 p.m. until 4 a.m., going from bar to bar, between 42nd Street and 45th Street, I made $800, working alone, in one day. They threw away empty bottles and cans, and I took them.”
Another hot hotspot is Flash Dancers. He remembers capitalizing on the jiggle-joint’s policy of pushing customers to purchase drinks. “In four or five hours, I could get 2,400 bottles” — which would generate $120.
Here are three stories of can collectors, all immigrants who arrived on US shores with no money and limited skills. Finding gold in other people’s refuse, they have turned themselves into shoestring entrepreneurs and discovered their American dreams.
While wealthy New Yorkers look askance at can collectors lugging recyclables through ritzy neighborhoods, Jeanett Pilatacsi, 38, says it is an occupation that brings self-respect and good pay.
“This is better than my old job, working in a candle factory,” she told The Post. “It was too many hours for too little money. Now, my family and I, we work together, from noon until 8pm, collecting cans until we fill up our truck.”
The bags are transported in a white 2021 Mercedes Benz Sprinter van, purchased with credit. Sometimes the vehicle and the family members work overtime: “We’ll go out from 1 a.m. until 2 a.m. and collect bottles and cans from bars before they close.”
Their payoff tonight will come in cash, more than $600 for a long day of work, when a truck pulls up from the Elmsford-based recycling company Galvanize Group to take the goods.
Smaller, additional bags hold glass, but, Pilatacsi said, “Bottles are the hardest part. They are so heavy.” They also pay the same five cents per receptacle as aluminum and plastic — a sum that has stubbornly stuck in place since 1983, when five cents then was worth 15 cents now.
Though Pilatacsi and her family of a dozen are satisfied to be making bank this way, the business began out of necessity.
“Fifteen years ago, my father lost his job in construction,” she said. “It was scary. We did not know how we would pay the rent. He went out with a shopping cart and started gathering cans. Now he is retired and we took over.”
At the beginning, she added, he would accumulate 30 boxes of returnables per week. Now, on their best days, the family members collect as many as 100 bags, which would be good for $1,000.
Their decision to treat can collecting as a business made it all possible, she said. They learned the value of forging relationships with doormen and porters, in order to obtain their discarded treasures, and to ignore the haters. “Sometimes people will say to me that we’re digging in garbage,” she explained with an eye roll. “But we don’t care. We know what we’re doing.”
All 12 collection crew members are related and live together in a Rego Park house that they own. Pilatacsi said their profits from canning pay all their bills. When they’re not working, they eat meals communally, help to raise one another’s children and share in the thousands that can be earned each week.
After a day of canning in Manhattan, where they tend to forage from 99th to 86th Streets, Pilatacsi likes to unwind with a shower, family dinner and telenovela before going to bed, waking up the next morning and starting all over again.
The kids help collect cans every now and then when they’re not in school. Pilatacsi’s nephew Nelson, 11, plans to attend college and recently pitched in during the waning days of summer vacation. On weekends, he said, “We all take it easy and go to the park together.”
For Mario Palonci, a 70-year-old immigrant from the Czech Republic, canning has served as a lifeline.
A reformed alcoholic — “I drank 20 or 30 cans of beer per day,” he told The Post. “Beer, beer, beer…” — who had been living on the street after his construction jobs dried up, he now resides in a Brooklyn shelter and makes up for financial shortfalls by collecting 2,000 cans per night when he musters the energy to do it.
“Most people who work all night, they go home,” Palonci told The Post. “I spend the morning sorting through my cans, organizing them, putting them in the proper bags. It’s hard work, but it is the best work for me.”
Besides providing money, he said it earns him respect. “I work on Bedford Street,” said Palonci, who said he suffers from type 2 diabetes and transports his redeemable goods in a cart. “The bar owners know me and know that there will be no disorder from me. I am a professional.”
Meals are offered to him at the shelter but money from canning provides Palonci with other essentials. Besides additional food, transportation and clothing, he said, “I must have cigarettes and Internet. I need to read the news from home.”
For Josefa Marin, an immigrant from Mexico, the collecting of cans means nothing less than a better future for her child. During the early 2000s, her daughter was commuting from home to Briarcliffe College on Long Island, and Marin struggled to get by with a succession of low-paying jobs. One was in a clothing factory, another in a restaurant. After losing the restaurant gig and unable to find another, she turned to can collecting to pay for her daughter’s books, meals and commuting expenses.
Talking to others who collected cans, 53-year-old Marin picked up tips and discovered something amazing about a line of labor that seemed like a last resort.
“I’m my own boss and can work hard to be successful. I walked through Bushwick and Greenpoint, going into bars and restaurants, asking for their cans and bottles. At the beginning I was making $20 or $30 a day. Then it got to $90.”
These days, Marin benefits from her established connections with building workers who appreciate her coming by and taking bags of recyclable refuse off their hands.
“It’s all about relationships,” she said. “You show your work ethic and come with respect. You don’t make a mess and leave everything better than it was before you got there.”
In 2011, she had a chance meeting with a man called Pedro Romero, who was from her hometown of Puebla. He, too, was struggling to get by in NYC. They recognized one another, fell in love and combined forces to profitably can together. They now live together in a Williamsburg walk-up and work night and day, sleeping when they can (often in their car, which gets used for transport).
As a team, she said they pull in 5,000 cans a day. Because they do their own sorting and separating at the non-profit Sure We Can, they can yield 6.5 cents per can.156
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When the couple considers their future, they have the same dream as many people nearing their golden years.
“Eventually, we want to take it easy” said Romero. “We are saving money and looking forward to returning home to our country. We’d like to retire together in Mexico.”