Among the five documentary shorts nominated for an Oscar this year is Redemption, a thirty-five minute film about New York City’s “canners”: the men, women, and children who collect bottles and cans from the city’s streets for their five-cent cash redemption value.

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IMAGE: Walter collecting cans and bottles from a public wastebin; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

If you live in New York, you’re almost guaranteed to see a canner every day, dragging an overstuffed shopping trolley in the cycling lane or balancing two bulging plastic sacks on a stick held across their shoulders. If you sleep with your windows open, you may even wake up to the sound of someone going through the rubbish and recycling bags you’ve set out for collection, before they are scooped up by the city’s Sanitation trucks — but that is likely to be the limit of your interaction with canners and their trade.

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IMAGE: Canning with a stick-equipped trolley; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

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IMAGE: A canner waiting for the redemption centre to open; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

Intrigued by the existence of this overlooked community, Redemption‘s directors, John Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, set out to answer the question, “What is the world of these people?”

To a certain extent, they succeed. We meet a cross-section of canners, from Walter, a sixty-year-old Vietnam War veteran and alcoholic who sees the world in terms of its redemption value, from a 250-can coffee from Starbucks to a 100-million-can townhouse, to Susan, who tells us she has a science degree and received an IBM’s Winner’s Circle Award for computer sales in 1990, but is now “helping keep the city clean” while topping up her Social Security. Some of the canners in the documentary are homeless, but most are not, and the majority used to have “normal” jobs, in restaurants, domestic service, or Chinatown sweatshops.

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IMAGE: Nuve collecting cans and bottles with her young son; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

In Sunnyside, Queens, Nuve supports four children on her canning work, sending the three eldest to school before she starts making the rounds with her youngest. Then there is Charles, a Rastafarian who used to be a line cook at Houlihan’s; a Guatemalan couple who spend six months of the year growing corn outside Quetzaltenango and the rest canning in New York; Mr. John, a homeless canner from Osaka; and Lilly, a Chinese woman who cuts Mr. John’s hair and shaves his beard in return for his help guarding her trolley-full of cans while she goes back to the tiny one-bedroom flat she shares with seven others for a few hours’ sleep.

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IMAGE: Mr. John before his haircut; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

By following the canners as they go about their daily rounds, the film captures their long hours and exposure to the elements, their friendships and occasional fights (as when a much faster-working Chinese woman goes through a prime pile of rubbish on what Susan considers to be her street), and the reactions they elicit from fellow New Yorkers: annoyance from supermarket redemption center owners, some building superintendents, and cyclists; practised avoidance from everyone else.

The result is an engaging portrait of an extremely hard-working subsection (there are an estimated 5,000 canners working today) of New York City’s population. What the film is missing, frustratingly, are the kinds of things an edible geographer might want to know about canning — the details that might help us understand its spatial, economic, and cultural logic.

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IMAGE: Susan in a fight with a Chinese canner; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

There are tantalising hints: Susan, the former IBM saleswoman, talks about a particular neighbourhood as being well-off, but does that translate into more cans to be redeemed, or fewer? Are there parts of the city with disproportionately high on-street bottle and can consumption, translating into richer pickings at the corner rubbish bins? Which buildings are less diligent about their separation, making it worth going through the regular trash as well as the bags of recyclables? In other words, what could we learn about New York City by seeing it through a canner’s eyes?

Meanwhile, the question of territory is also only briefly alluded to during Susan’s fight, but it must be a constant source of tension given that almost every canner in the movie complains about the ever-growing numbers of people who are trying to make a living on five-cent redemptions. In a follow-up article in New York Magazine, O’Neill, the documentary’s co-director, explains that “The black homeless men and the Chinese grandmas really don’t get along”:

Twenty years ago, the canning population was mostly homeless people collecting just enough to get high or buy a small bottle of vodka, but now “they’re getting out-hustled by the Chinese grandmas, because Chinese grandmas work really hard.”

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IMAGE: At the Pathmark redemption centre; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

According to Sure We Can, a non-profit bottle redemption center in Bushwick, some canners work twenty-hour days and earn more than $300 per week, while others only can on weekends or in good weather, in order to top up their benefits or make some pocket money. Mapping the patterns that their different routes make in both time and space would surely yield some fascinating insights, as would an anthropological look at the negotiations that go on as new canners establish routes and ambitious (or desperate) canners try to expand their territory.

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IMAGE: Susan and her haul; still via Indiewire.

The geography of redemption centres is another fraught issue that is barely touched on in the film. Theoretically, anywhere that sells cans or bottles with a redemption value must accept them back and provide the refund. In practice, some supermarkets have set up “reverse vending machines” in their lobby, but strictly control how many bottles or cans they accept back from any one individual, in order to discourage canners with towering trolley-loads from setting up camp. For the most part, canners convert their findings into cash at one of a few dedicated redemption centres — in the film, these include the Lower East Side Pathmark, which was flooded during Hurricane Sandy and has since closed.

At one point during the documentary, several canners congregate near an abandoned lot and await the arrival of a painted-over Penske van, whose Chinese crew hand out cash, load the truck with sacks of cans, and drive off. Although it is not explained, this is an example of the layer of middlemen with private trucks that is built into the canning economy, taking advantage of the lack of redemption centers in Manhattan by offering the canners three or four cents per item, instead of a nickel, and then redeeming the consolidated load themselves.

Sometimes a redemption centre owner will organise a truck pick-up himself: this 2006 New York Times article about the “King of Canners,” Eugene Gadsden, explains that, after the 29th Street redemption centre closed, Gadsden organised a group of canners to persuade Eldar Rakhamimov, a Russian immigrant who owns a redemption center in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, to drive over to Manhattan twice a week to collect their harvest at four cents a bottle.

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IMAGE: Negotiating the streets with a fully-loaded trolley; screenshot from Redemption’s trailer.

That the opportunity to “can” exists at all in New York is due to the state’s Bottle Bill, enacted as part of environmental conservation legislation in 1982. Only eleven states in the U.S. have some kind of container deposit legislation, which occasionally leads to some cross-border shenanigans: a recent Los Angeles Times article pointed out that California’s 2011 redemption rate for plastic containers was an impressive but technically impossible 104 percent, and blamed “crafty entrepreneurs” driving “semi-trailers full of cans from Nevada or Arizona.”

Bottle Bills are usually promoted as an incentive to encourage the public to recycle more and throw away less. Various studies have shown that they do increase recycling rates dramatically: the United States’ overall beverage container recycling rate is estimated at thirty-three percent, while states with container deposit laws have an average rate of seventy percent. As watching a documentary like Redemption makes clear, however, a lot of this extra recycling and sorting is not being done by the consumers of canned or bottled beverages; instead, the state has outsourced its acts of environmental virtue, at far below minimum wage ($2.50 an hour at best, by my rough calculations), to some of its most marginalised populations.

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IMAGE: Lilly and her trolley; still via Indiewire.

Financial incentives to recycle bottles and cans don’t always work this way: in Germany, my friends and hosts have always been religious about returning bottles to the shop to claim their Pfand,” and I, who have never pursued a single cent of redemption value in California or New York, have happily followed their lead. Of course, in Germany, the standard deposit amount is €0.25, which is quite a bit more than a nickel.

In a story published on Narratively in November 2012, Laura Shin reports that in 2010, State Senator Liz Krueger proposed a five-cent increase to New York’s redemption value, “but, two years later, Krueger’s bill is still awaiting a vote.” Interestingly, Shin also quotes Sure We Can’s co-founder, Ana M. Martinez de Luco, who says that the canners oppose increasing the fee out of a fear that ten cents is enough to motivate consumers into redeeming their cans and bottles themselves:

They said, “When a family sees that they can get a dollar by collecting ten ten-cent bottles, they will put out fewer bags. People, for five cents, they don’t really care, but with ten-cent deposits, canners will have less to pick up. Even restaurants will start to keep the cans.”

As always, the design of incentives is a tricky business indeed.

In the end, Redemption raises many more questions than it answers — but perhaps that is all it needed to do. You can watch the trailer below; the film is currently screening with other Oscar-nominated shorts, so check your local listings.

[Found via Grub Street New York.]