In New York and Oregon, Canning Reduces Waste and Changes Lives — Episode 150 of Building Local Power

Date: 5 May 2022 | posted in: Building Local Power, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In this episode of Building Local Power, host Jess Del Fiacco and Neil Seldman, Director of ILSR’s Waste to Wealth initiative are joined by several guests who are involved in the canning community. Canners, also called waste pickers or scrappers, collect recyclable materials such as cans and bottles from the streets and redeem them at recycling centers. The guests are Christine Hegel and Jessica Yauri of Sure We Can, a nonprofit recycling center in New York City, and Taylor Cass Talbott and Kris Brown of Ground Score Association, a ‘peer-led’ initiative in Portland, Oregon, organized by and for workers who identify as canners.

Highlights of the conversation include:

  • How canning work directly impacted Kris and Jessica’s lives in positive ways, and the changes they’d like to see to improve the system.
  • Why recycling policy needs to be more inclusive of canners’ experience and the value they provide.
  • The missions of Sure We Can and Ground Score Association, and their goals for the future.

“I think that one of the things that really has drawn me to want to participate as both an advocate and a researcher in this particular work sector is that creating supports for and expanding the acceptance of canning across the nation and for waste picking around the world is both an issue of economic justice and the right to work as well as an issue of sustainability.” – Christine Hegel

“We need to have more canners acknowledged for what they do. They are midnight trash organizers and they are essential for helping keeping these corporations accountable for their waste.” – Kris Brown

“I think whether if you need a support system because you’re homeless or because you don’t know the language or because you’re trying to figure out both of those systems, having nonprofit community centers that focus on addressing these certain issues, it’s something that’s needed.” – Jessica Yauri

“We really see that as systems that generate recognition and opportunities for particularly informal waste management workers, but it could be any kind of marginalized waste management workers essentially, create opportunities for them to access social and labor protections as well as really find advancement, secure advancement, within not just solid waste management systems, but also within decision making processes about these systems.” – Taylor Cass Talbott

Jess Del Fiacco: Hello, and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast dedicated to thought provoking conversations about how we can challenge corporate monopolies and expand the power of people to shape their own future. I’m Jess Del Fiacco, the host of Building Local Power and communications manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. For more than 45 years, ILSR has worked to build thriving, equitable communities where power, wealth, and accountability remain in local hands. And today I am joined by a great group of guests. Let’s see, first and foremost, my colleague Neil Seldman, who directs ILSR’s Waste to Wealth program. Happy to have you here, Neil.
Neil Seldman: It’s certainly good to be here and thank you for adding us to the whole series that you are coordinating.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, so I think I’m going to throw things right over to you, Neil, to talk a little bit about our topic and then introduce each of our guests.
Neil Seldman: Sure. Well, thanks. My name is Neil Seldman. I work with Jess at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and I work on the Waste to Wealth program, which focuses on how cities and companies can recover more material, add value to the local economy and increase the tax base and remain independent as far as possible from all the surrounding waste and recycling monopolies that threaten our economy. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ll introduce our guests in a moment. I just wanted to give some introduction to the issue which are, is, I should say, Bottle Bills, container legislation. That is the deposit you put on your soda or juice can or water bottle. It encourages you to bring it back to get your nickel and dime. And if you don’t bring it back, it goes to state and local government.
Neil Seldman: A lot has been happening with Bottle Bills in the last few years. Individual states have had Bottle Bill campaigns from the grassroots. Other states are expanding their Bottle Bills to include water and juice bottles. And other states are increasing the deposit from 5 cents to a nickel. Finally, there is a federal bill working its way through Congress which would declare a national Bottle Bill. Folks who are in the recycling field know that Bottle Bill materials are clean. They go directly to market. They get the highest price and it’s a very efficient system of bringing back your material for aggregation processing and reuse. It turns out that in all this discussion, very few times are people talking about the people actually doing the recycling, the canners. In some cases they’re called street pickers or rag pickers, et cetera. We’re going to call them canners because that’s what they call themselves.
Neil Seldman: And it turns out that there’s a whole sociology and a whole political economy of what’s going on among the canner economy. And we need to listen to that and I think we’re going to have a very interesting conversation. I also want to point out the two organizations that we’re going to be talking to today are involved in inclusivity. They want Bottle Bills. They want extended producer responsibility bills. They want all legislation that’s increasing recycling, reducing waste, to be inclusive of the people impacted by those systems, the workers, the consumers who are doing the recycling. So I think we’re going to really open up a lot of eyes as to what’s happening and possibly what might happen with a more intensive imposition of Bottle Bills and other forms of deposit and recycling.
Neil Seldman: So with that, I want to introduce folks. Christine Hegel is a professor at Western Connecticut State University in the Department of Anthropology. She works with Sure We Can, which is based in New York City as a nonprofit organization, representing the rights of canners, workers in the Bottle Bill system in New York City and of course New York State. She is joined with us today, from Brooklyn, New York, with Jessica Yauri, who right now she’s a college student. She’ll let us know what she’s studying. But she grew up assisting her mom who is a canner and Jessica did some canning herself. So she will be informing us about what her life has been like as a canner, working on her own and with her mom. On the west coast, in Portland, Oregon, we have Taylor Cass Talbott who works for Ground Score Association, which is an association that represents canners’ interests. She is also an international organizer working with Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing, known as WIEGO, W-I-E-G-O. And she has extensive experience across the world on the life of people making a living off of scavenging.
Neil Seldman: And she also has recently completed a case study of the Portland, Oregon Bottle Bill system with a focus on its inclusivity. With her is Chris Brown, who also works for the Ground Score association. And Chris is also in charge of the People’s Depot, a bottle redemption center run by and for canners. This is a terrific lineup for us to both find out about the world of canning and the problems and challenges and also the potential of this sector of our economy. So we’re going to start with our friends out west, Taylor and Chris. Taylor, could you just describe what the organization does?
Taylor Cass Tal…: Yeah, sure thing, Neil. So Ground Score Association is a worker’s organization that engages informal waste workers, right? Dumpster divers, canners, scrappers. And we organize ourselves to basically create and fill gaps in the waste management system in ways that are very low barrier. We have several programs, but one of our programs that is, I guess, of interest for this podcast is our People’s Depot, which is a bottle and can redemption center that actually came out of the COVID-19 pandemic when the state stopped enforcing our local bottle bill. And so most of the places where you can take your bottles and cans for redemption closed down and suddenly there was no place for canners to return their cans and bottles. So we were actually funded by the City of Portland to start our own bottle and can redemption center that is run by and for canners. And now currently, the People’s Depot is funded by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, which is the producer responsibility organization that oversees our Bottle Bill here in Oregon.
Neil Seldman: Well, thank you. We’re going to come back to that. And Chris, could you describe the People’s Depot and what it’s like to work there and to run that?
Kris Brown: Oh, absolutely. The People’s Depot is a pure ran beverage return redemption center. All of the workers that work with me had been canners themselves, like I was, or homeless essentially. It is a way for people like me to be able to get back to work. And we serve anywhere from 60 to 80 canners a day. Canners come in and return the recyclables in with us. We count them by hand, organize them and we pay people out.
Neil Seldman: And what happens to the materials after you pay for it and sort it?
Kris Brown: Everything is picked up by the OBRC. We have a daily pickup. And right now we are returning anywhere from 1,300 to $1,500 a day worth of bottles and cans and glass. And that’s how much money we’re giving to the people back who are canning essentially.
Neil Seldman: And could you please let us know what OBRC stands for?
Taylor Cass Tal…: It’s the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. It’s the producer responsibility organization that runs our Bottle Bill.
Neil Seldman: Chris, the 13 to $1,500 a day, that’s money you pay out to people who bring in the material, who basically work for you, not directly but independent people?
Kris Brown: Yeah, these are people who go out and dumpster dive and go and retrieve recyclables from trash bins and they come to us and we cash them out for them. We are an alternative. Instead of going to Safeway or any of these big corporations that return cans, they have a smaller limit so people are more comfortable coming to us, some of the canners, because we have canned ourselves. We know the experiences that these people have gone through who are on the other side of the table.
Neil Seldman: And by definition, you, yourself, have been a canner for quite some time.
Kris Brown: Yes, it was my only source of income for close to four years.
Neil Seldman: Great. We’re going to come back to your experience in a few minutes. Thank you, both Taylor and Chris, for filling us in on what’s going on in that part of the country. Let’s go back to New York City and talk to Christine and Jessica. Christine, could you please describe what Sure We Can does?
Christine Hegel: Sure. Thanks for having me, Neil. Sure We Can is a nonprofit organization. We’re a recycling center, community space, and sustainability hub and we’re in Brooklyn. Sure We Can was founded to support the work of canners. It was founded in 2009 by Ana de Luco and Eugene Gadsden, who at the time were both homeless and had a real vision to support the work of canners because they themselves were canning to earn a living. And we’ve attempted to carry this vision forward. And in its present form, Sure We Can is really a place that brings together not only canners but also people in the neighborhood and students who come to learn about recycling and the Bottle Bill, as well as artists who come to engage in creative projects around sustainability in the circular economy.
Neil Seldman: Are there any other organizations like you in New York City?
Christine Hegel: No, we are the only nonprofit redemption center in New York City. And there are maybe 40 other redemption centers as well as sites outside of grocery stores where people can use reverse vending machines to redeem cans. But we’re the only nonprofit.
Neil Seldman: Okay. Jessica, like Chris did out in Portland, could you tell us your experience with canning, both your direct experience and assisting others like your mother?
Jessica Yauri: Yeah, of course. First off, thank you for having me. And I guess the whole experience started… Me, myself, I am a young person and it started even when I was younger in New York City, as you know. I come from a low income, living in a very high raising neighborhood. So what I decided to do as a child to just get some money to just feed and just have little snacks and have an allowance, I just wanted to have independency but not ask my family, it started with canning. Here in Williamsburg, recycling was something not really big and even New York City. And so I had seen bottles and cans just on the floor always, especially since I live in an industrial area of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. So that pushed me a little bit more to also kind of be in the climate change, understand… I wanted to make an impact, but I also was able to make a little bit of money on my own and start being independent at 11 years old being fueled by the cans.
Jessica Yauri: But from there, there was also the economic crisis that affected my family. And so with that said, low income background, my mother decided to do what was the fastest thing that was available and accessible and that was canning. It was something that was already kind of a little bit aware, she already had known what was expected because actually some of my family also recycles for full time as their jobs essentially. And so she got right into it. It was really quickly accessible and I think something that me and her both loved when we were doing the canning.
Jessica Yauri: It’s on own schedules, we are our own bosses. There’s no structure of having to follow anyone or anything. And I think that maybe goes into a little bit like entrepreneurship of this is something that we get to do. Whether at first it started something like a little hobby, but it started to now this is what fuels my family. And so because of that, I think it’s made an impact and it still does. I was raised into this essentially influenced by recycling because it is essentially what fuels my family as an income in order to feed me and survive here in New York City.
Neil Seldman: Well, thank you so much for that. Could you just walk us through, in a couple of minutes, of what your mom does every day and what you did for a while?
Jessica Yauri: Yeah, of course. So because here in New York City, of course the big population, there’s huge trash leftovers. And so that means that there’s a lot more bottles accessible than other areas. So with that said, my mother starts, I want to say, around 2:00 AM in the morning and starts going around to bars, delis and just any storefront that is closing up in order in order to take the bottles and cans specifically that are already sorted. And from there, she goes with her shopping cart to other locations, specifically delis, to get the cardboard boxes to sort them out. Because that is one of the many steps that have to be done in canning. It’s not only just collecting, but then sorting and counting. And so going to that second process after collecting, and then she goes into more of the residential areas here in New York City in Williamsburg where she does more of the sorting, of picking the trash, picking out the bottles and cans.
Jessica Yauri: And by that time, I want to say, it’s around like 9, 10 o’clock in afternoon. So she heads back to the street, specifically the spot she has and starts sorting them out. Before she used to go to recycling center at Sure We Can to do it, but because it’s a little bit overcrowded at certain times… I’m going to call it the rush hours. So it’s really packed. It’s just so much is going on. It’s very busy, like a little beehive. But with that said, it’s a lot going on and my mom just didn’t want to handle all that. So she has her own little place. And also the pandemic, I think being just cautious of that, she stopped going to recycling center in terms of sorting it there. But she still goes to drop it off and storage it and everything. So going back by 5:00 PM, she’s at the recycling center dropping off the cans and bottles. And from there, it starts all over again around like 7, 8 o’clock.
Neil Seldman: A very hard working person, as are you and all canners. I’m going to start the next question starting with you, Jessica, and then I’d like to switch to Chris. Obviously, as you described, canning is essential to your family. It’s a source of income. Tell us about what you’re doing now and how your experience with canning has informed your current plans and your current work as a student.
Jessica Yauri: Yeah, of course. Currently, right now I’m a college student. And I think for me, it started in the educational and advocacy side of just being able to educate people about what the recycling center but also what climate looks like and how canners are part of that climate change movement. I think often people know about like, “Yeah, go recycle.” But it’s a lot more than just recycle and it cannot be just a one person team. It’s a whole community out there and just being aware. And I think that’s something I’ve take under my end of just educating people. I think that for me has been very impactful. But also something that here in New York City that I wish I there could be a little bit more of is more centers like this because I’ve been to recycling centers where they are for profit. There is no community, there is no support system. And I think, for me, especially coming from various backgrounds, it’s essential.
Jessica Yauri: I think whether if you need a support system because you’re homeless or because you don’t know the language or because you’re trying to figure out both of those systems, having nonprofit community centers that focus on addressing these certain issues, it’s something that’s needed, but it’s not the funding. It’s not allocated here in New York City. It’s a whole advocacy thing that’s, again and again, to advocate that we need funding, we need more support from the government and the city and working with more local politics and politicians to just notice us. I think that was the biggest thing, is just notice that we’re here and we exist.
Neil Seldman: We will come back to that. Last quick questions, what college are you going to and what is your major?
Jessica Yauri: Yeah, of course. I’m currently [inaudible 00:16:43] at Baruch College in New York City and my major is operations management.
Neil Seldman: All right. Well, thank you so much. I’m going to go right across country to Chris. Chris, could you discuss basically what canning has meant to you in your life’s experience as Jessica has just done?
Kris Brown: Yeah, absolutely. I’m still currently homeless, but I’ve been homeless on and off for the past six years now. I started canning roughly five years ago. And before I canned, I was on a street corner begging for money. I’ve shoplifted. I’ve done things that I’m not proud of essentially. Well, when I got here to Oregon, I was watching other people dig things out of trash cans and I was trying to figure out why they were doing it. So I watched and learned. And it’s made a huge impact on my life. I am very much more entrepreneurial now. Canning, it’s a self-motivated gig, for sure. You are your own business out there. It’s up to you to choose your own hours. It’s up to you to choose how hard you work.
Kris Brown: There are a lot of hurdles because it’s just not, just like Jessica was saying, collecting the cans is half the battle. Returning them and organizing them is the other half. And a lot of stores, they make it tougher on you. Some of the redemption centers, the return places, are far flung and out of reach and sometimes you have to walk three, four miles just to go return your cans. But it’s made me a more determined person. I haven’t had to can for over a year now because of the People’s Depot. And I also have two other jobs on top of what I do. But I’m able to handle these jobs because of my experience canning. It’s given me a lot of self confidence in myself. Because just back when I first started, I was only making maybe three to four bucks in the course of two hours. And over the course of three years, four years, I could go out and make 50 bucks at any time that I needed to. And that was enough for me to get what I needed for the week and feel good about it.
Kris Brown: I didn’t have to hustle anyone. I didn’t have to lie to anyone. I didn’t have to steal from any stores and it feels good. And more people who do can, they don’t need to feel ashamed of digging in trash cans because there was a stigma to it. And that’s something that I want to help change because I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished.
Neil Seldman: Chris and Jessica, you are very articulate spokespeople for canners and thanks for joining us. And I’m not ending this conversation. But I really am, and I think our listeners will be, quite impressed with your worldview, your experiences and your determination. It’s quite inspiring.
Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing, both of you. Thank you for listening to our show. If you’re enjoying this episode, I hope you’ll consider heading over to to help support our work. Your donation not only makes this show possible, but it also helps us to develop the research and resources we make available for free on our website. You can head over to to contribute today. Any amount is sincerely appreciated. All right. Now, back to the show.
Neil Seldman: Yeah, it really is terrific. I am going to switch now. I’d like to talk to Taylor about whether it’s easier for Chris to be on the street or it’s easier for you to deal with the cities, the DEQ and the Bottle Bill bureaucracy. Because I know you have challenges too. And perhaps you can start by describing what I think Chris mentioned earlier, that it doesn’t matter how many cans you do, you have a set budget, no matter what. That budget is set by the… Well, you’ll tell us that. But the key point is that if you had more money, you would be doing more work, there would be more canners, there would be more social progress and economic progress. Could you address those issues for a few minutes, Taylor?
Taylor Cass Tal…: Sure. I think one of the challenges that we do face here in Oregon, it’s actually a challenge and a benefit in some ways. Oregon’s system is a little bit different than a lot of other Bottle Bills across the country. Ours is privatized so it’s managed by the producers themselves. And so any bottle redemption centers that exist outside of a grocery store is going to be run by producers. On the one hand it makes the system very efficient. We have really high return rates. All of the materials that flow through the system are recycled domestically in this country. So I think a lot of the country and even the world perhaps are looking at the Oregon model. For those of us who are interested in creating services that are oriented really for canners, by and for canners, the challenge there is that if we want to run our own depot, for example, there’s really not kind of legal space within the system to do that.
Taylor Cass Tal…: There’s no financial incentive for there to be independent redemption centers. We’ve been able to carve out some space for that, mainly thanks to the pandemic and kind of the very obvious need for canners to continue earning income during the pandemic when the state was not enforcing our Bottle Bill. But now, currently that’s through a generous grant from the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative. That grant helps us pay the labor for sorting and counting cans and kind of coordinating the Depot. But really it’s a flat rate, right? We’re not being paid for the amount of materials that come through. Now, increasingly we’re seeing a lot more canners coming to the Depot, a lot more demand for our services, but we can’t really grow unless OBRC is going to give us a larger grant in the future.
Neil Seldman: So how does that work, Taylor? I presume you put in a budget to the organization. What happens after you put in a budget request?
Taylor Cass Tal…: Yeah, and actually it’s been kind of one of the perks of working with the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative is that it’s pretty low barrier, at least in terms of the application. They’ve developed a relationship directly with us. They’ve said that it’s pretty hard to find other organizations willing to do what we’re doing. And I think it’s pretty hard also for redemption centers. They have a lot of issues, they say, with canners coming and so they’re really happy that we exist out there because we create a space where canners feel welcome and we never really have issues with people who come to our Depot. But so our relationship with OBRC is such that, yeah, they ask us to submit a budget and it’s really a conversation. We meet with them regularly. We are in conversation with them about growing our program kind of together with them. So I think that there are some interesting opportunities there, but we’ll have to see what the future holds.
Neil Seldman: Could you just talk about the concept you’ve introduced, you and Christine have introduced, on inclusivity, both in the US and throughout the world where you guys work?
Taylor Cass Tal…: Yeah, well, Christine and I and other folks around the world who are working in this sector have been working a lot on this concept of inclusive extended producer responsibility. And this really came about through Sure We Can and Ground Score Association’s involvement with what’s called the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, which is a global network of organizations like ours that are working with waste pickers. And we realize that most of these organizations are facing extended producer responsibility policies or voluntary practices where they are. And that there are a lot of potential benefits, but more than anything, challenges that they’re facing with those policy frameworks and those systems. So we worked with the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers and also with my other hat that I wear with WIEGO to start a working group on extended producer responsibility several years ago where we really just exchanged like, “What’s your experience of EPR and how is it impacting waste pickers?” And kind of through those exchanges over the years, we started to develop some ideas for like, “What does it mean for an EPR system to be inclusive?”
Taylor Cass Tal…: And we really see that as systems that generate recognition and opportunities for particularly informal waste management workers, but it could be any kind of marginalized waste management workers essentially, create opportunities for them to access social and labor protections as well as really find advancement, secure advancement, within not just solid waste management systems, but also within decision making processes about these systems.
Neil Seldman: That’s quite ambitious. Thank you. I have questions, but hopefully we’ll have time to come back. I’d like to switch back to New York and talk to Christine on the subject of international waste pickers because I do understand that there is an international waste pickers association. Could you describe that a little bit? And I do believe they’re working on a new constitution, which I’m sure our listening audience would like to hear about.
Christine Hegel: Sure. So both Sure We Can and Ground Score and two other organizations in North America, in Canada, as well as waste picker organizations from across about 30 different countries are members of the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers. And this was an alliance that was formed back in 2008 to basically create a way for these organizations to network and share organizing strategies with one another and amplify the message of empowering waste pickers around the world. So under this umbrella, certainly as Taylor just mentioned, one of the things that we’ve been working on is learning together about EPR and the kinds of policies that are being proposed in different places around the world and developing this position paper on EPR. We’ve also developed educational materials that have helped us, in our own locations, do education with canners so that they themselves become conversant and knowledgeable about EPR policies and therefore how to advocate for versions of these emerging policies that truly serve their interests and needs as a labor group.
Christine Hegel: And then most recently there’s been an incredible effort to try to formalize the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers so that ultimately the Alliance can be recognized by the International Labor Organization. And so the very first step in that recognition process is to develop a constitution that will lay out the aims and the scope of this Alliance and to articulate a kind of governing structure. And so we’ve been working on that for over a year. It’s gone through multiple revisions and, again, all along the way those who are contributing to the writing of the constitution have been waste pickers themselves in collaboration with some technical experts. And then it’s also gone back to the waste picker organizations within the Alliance who are doing education and validation and editing of this constitution so that when it’s completed and ready for a ratification, it truly is a grassroots effort with the voices and the interests of waste pickers.
Neil Seldman: This conversation is getting more and more interesting. From my perspective, we’ve heard about what happens on the street and we’re going all the way to the International Labor Organization in, I imagine, Geneva where they’re stationed. So again, this is exciting. I have a couple of specific questions, if you don’t mind. I believe it was Taylor that mentioned that the Oregon Bottle Bill system is very efficient. You’ve got a great return rate. I believe you’re the only state that has increased the deposit to 10 cents. Has that been a big factor? I know you’re up around 80 or 90% return on your deposits. Is the 10 cent the key to getting that high level of return?
Taylor Cass Tal…: I do know that they had, as part of the policy, if it dropped below a certain percent return rate that they would increase the deposit. And that was basically what triggered the increase to the 10 cent deposit. And so, yes, it does seem like an increased deposit is pretty essential to increasing the number of containers returned.
Neil Seldman: All right. Well, this has been quite an extensive and interesting conversation. At the end of this podcast, we will make sure that you are able to get in touch with all four of our guests, Chris, Jessica, Taylor, and Christine. And I’m sure when you get in touch with them they’ll be able to share resources. At this point, I would just like to go to each of you and ask you for what your concluding thoughts and remarks might be. I’m going to start from the left to right on my screen. Chris, would you mind giving us a summation statement?
Kris Brown: Yeah, for me as a canner, we need to have more canners acknowledged for what they do. They are midnight trash organizers and they are essential for helping keeping these corporations accountable for their waste. If the canners, these informal pickers, don’t keep these corporations accountable for what they do, who will? And what we do is crucial and they need to be acknowledged more. We need more rights. We need to have dumpsters not be locked up. More and more dumpsters are being locked up on us because… I personally don’t know. Yeah, I feel like we need to be acknowledged for what we do because it is a very important-
Neil Seldman: Chris, when you say locked up, meaning a canner might go to dump off his or hers day’s work and the company will not take him so they have to hold on to him for the rest of-
Kris Brown: No, no, no, there are more big businesses that are locking their dumpsters to prevent people from digging into them. Yeah, yeah. Because not every canner is a normal person. Especially here in Portland, there are people with mental health issues and people who are on drugs that collect cans to supplement their lifestyle essentially. And there’s no judgment. But not everyone is the cleanest and because one person messed up a dumpster then that company is locking their dumpster up forever. And that does a lot more damage in the long run than it does as a short term solution. So there needs to be more communication between businesses and waste pickers.
Neil Seldman: My son lives in LA and I spend vacations there and there are a lot of canners in LA. And my son has been living there for 20,30 years. And what I’ve noticed is that years ago, there was a lot of disruption of garbage cans put out in the night that it gets picked up. But it seems to me that the canners are being more respectful and that the cooperation is growing. I know when I’m there, we organize our cans so that it’s easier for the canners to get at. This is just anecdotal, but I’m seeing an improvement in the relations between canners and the people who set out their recycling every week. Just my observation of something.
Kris Brown: No, there is a lot of communication within the neighborhoods compared to the big businesses. Here in Portland, most personal houses, they already have their trash organized. It’s actually relatively easy to be a canner here in Portland. You go down any street and their trash is perfectly organized. And that’s because the canners have trained them to organize their trash. They know that we’re going to go through their trash anyways so it’s better off for them to organize it for us.
Neil Seldman: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve observed. Now, does the city complain that you are taking revenue out of their recycling program? Is that an issue?
Kris Brown: Not that I know of. But this is why Taylor is doing this case study because we need more information on what canners actually do and the impact that they’re having, how much waste we are actually saving. We’re making sure that waste goes back into the system to be reused.
Taylor Cass Tal…: And I will say that the City of Portland actually passed an ordinance that has legalized canning in the city zone.
Neil Seldman: Very, very helpful. There was another comment about… CRI, Container Recycling Institute, did a study recently. I have not read it, but it is an analysis of Bottle Bill’s impact on recycling programs. And I think it was a negligible impact, but I think we should all read that study from the Container Recycling Institute. I think they’re based in Los Angeles. Chris, thank you so much. Taylor, did you have any ending comments perhaps?
Taylor Cass Tal…: Well, the one thing that I wanted to say is that there’s so many waste management systems now that are looking at this issue of equity and inclusion. And they’re wondering, “How can we create more diversity within our waste management system?” Which I think is, as we fairly well know, at least our formal waste management system doesn’t have a lot of diversity in terms of gender and race. I guess if you look at waste management systems, you do actually tend to find quite a lot of diversity. But a lot of that diversity exists within the more informal end of that spectrum. And so we really need to understand these communities in order to be able to, yeah, provide more realistic pathways for integration into better opportunities, into more formal opportunities, more regular and stable work. Because there are a lot of folks out there who really want that and they don’t see an opportunity into more regular and decent work in this sector.
Neil Seldman: Great. Thank you so much. Christine, any final comments or observations?
Christine Hegel: Sure. I think that one of the things that really has drawn me to want to participate as both an advocate and a researcher in this particular work sector is that creating supports for and expanding the acceptance of canning across the nation and for waste picking around the world is both an issue of economic justice and the right to work as well as an issue of sustainability, right? It’s sort of solving two problems at once. And canners are a kind of human infrastructure that is critical in systems that have failures, right? We know that in our waste management system, there’s low participation rates by residents who are not interested in disaggregating their materials and canners are a part of the solution to those low participation rates.
Christine Hegel: And increasingly, I think it’s the case in New York City, that we are really gaining ground in terms of getting the support of our city officials, our electeds, as well as folks who work in the DSNY and so forth. There remains tension, but there’s also a lot of growth in terms of them recognizing that the work that canners do really does increase diversion rates, which is important for the city to meet zero waste goals. And so I anticipate that with the efforts of canners themselves and organizations like Ground Score and Sure We Can, we can hopefully continue to move in that direction.
Neil Seldman: Just to say that DSNY is the Department of Sanitation of New York City. Taylor just mentioned that in Portland canning picking is legal. Is it legal in New York City and do you canners need it to be legal in New York City?
Christine Hegel: It’s an interesting question. There’s a bit of gray area in the DSNY regulations. There is a system that allows for fines to be given out for those who go into trash bags or cans that are set out on the sidewalk for collection by DSNY. But there’s also been public statements. And even on our 311 sort of city information site, they clarify that those fines shouldn’t be applied to individuals who are trying to pull out recyclable materials. And so it would be better for canners if there was more explicit language to decriminalize canning because there’s a lot of misunderstanding. And I’ve been in meetings with folks in the DSNY and the Department of Transportation with city council members, some of whom think that canning is illegal and aren’t quite clear that in fact it’s not explicitly illegal.
Neil Seldman: Great. Well, again, thank you so much. Jessica, your final comments on this fascinating subject?
Jessica Yauri: Yeah, I think that’s something just to add on. I think it’s just the educational aspect. I think more of just being able to talk about this at a younger age in certain school systems. And I think just being able to add this when talking about the climate movements and just being able to include essentially everything what Christine said, that recycling and it’s just one of the many processes that’s needed. But that waste pickers are one of those elements in the movement that is not spoken about or especially here, it’s already said in New York City, it’s very gray area and there’s so many stigma around it. And I think being able to address it through that movement would be the best way because it works hand to hand and it complements each other. And I think there’s no better way than for it to be able to address one issue when being able to address two issues at the same time.
Neil Seldman: Well, the four of you are terrific. I started by saying there’s a sociology and political economy of canners and now Christine has taught me there’s also an anthropology of this subject. You really have opened up my eyes and will open up the eyes of many people when they listen to this. Thank you so much. We will stay in touch. And I’m sure, since we’re going to put your contact information to your organizations, that you’re going to get a lot of questions and keep this conversation going. Thank you again. And Jess, again, thank you for carving out this time for us.
Jess Del Fiacco: Oh yeah. Thank you, everybody. Everything Neil just said times two. Great to hear from you all today and have you on the show.
Taylor Cass Tal…: Thanks so much for having us.
Kris Brown: Yeah, thank you for having us. It’s been an honor.
Neil Seldman: Thank you.
Christine Hegel: Thank you so much.
Jessica Yauri: Thank you.
Jess Del Fiacco: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That’s While you’re there, you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. We hope you’ll also take the opportunity to help us out with a gift that helps produce this very podcast and supports the research and resources we make available for free on our website. Finally, we ask that you let us know how we’re doing with a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. This show is produced by me, Jess Del Fiacco, edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I’m Jess Del Fiacco and I hope you’ll join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: iStock

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