Saturday, November 23, 2013

Culture In A Can: Picking Up Cans For A Living (Guest Post: Don Hargraves)

1) Can Collectors Have It In Their Jeans
I started off as a can collector in junior high, picking up stray cans wherever I could find them. While there are moments when can collecting was lucrative, the place where I lived at the time had few cans lying around – enough to whet a can collector's appetite but not enough to make it worthwhile. When my father talked about the shame he felt himself about picking up cans I stopped picking them up.

It took a few years of struggling in College to think again about picking up cans, during which time I was constantly living just this side of poverty. I became a regular at the plasma donation center, and often worked two or three part-time jobs at a time to keep going to school.

That changed on February 19, 1987. I walked around late at night and noticed there was a lot of cans lying on the ground. This time around, I found a few paper bags and picked up the cans and bottles lying around, making a few bucks in the process.

Suddenly I was aware of a way of earning money that gave me instant cash, didn't involved getting my arms poked, and worked out my body. I was hooked.

2) 1987-90: Living Off The Skim Of The Land
I did nights on a regular basis from early 1987 until well into the summer of 1990, started picking up during the day in October 1988, did football games whenever I could, and started picking up on the end of the school year in 1989.

During the school days I worked (Monday to Thursday), I had a set route which I would always work, which took me between Bessey, Kedzie, and Erickson halls, and the Mackey Business Building. It wasn't a particularly rich route, but I did well enough on it to cut down on the hours I worked, and I was able to defend it from other can collectors. On Weekend Nights I worked an hour or two over a route that wound through the downtown bar area and nearby parking lots. Sometimes I would work a little later, but often I had wage work during the weekends (a concession to “work-study”), so I often stopped around midnight.

Admittedly, most areas of the nation wouldn't give a can collector enough money to live on unless he did so 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So what was it about where I lived that allowed me to live off the proceeds?

First, we're talking about the State of Michigan. While “Seinfeld”'s idea of going to to Michigan to return bottles and cans was a bit off – New York has a five-cent deposit, the extra five cents is not worth the aggravation – Michigan's 10-cent deposit is a major incentive for someone willing to make a living in this way.

Then there was the comparisons between can collecting and wages at the time. When I collected as a daily part of my routine, the average was around $3.50 per hour, occasionally going up to $4 per hour for time-limited, on-campus work. Assuming the $4 per hour wage and 25 percent total taxation rate, this would translate to $12 take home pay (after taxes) for four hours of wage-work, $15 for five hours.

When I collected during the day, I averaged $12 to $15 per day for those hours of collecting, giving me an average of 1.5 hours of saved time. Multiply the 1.5 hours freed up per day (on average) by four days a week, and 10 weeks a term, and you gain 60 hours during the term, 180 hours over the school year. One hundred eighty hours that could be spent reading, listening to music (I bought many records that the previous owners had dumped in their rush to embrace CDs during this time), writing, napping, or just walking around.

Looking at this fact another way: When attending school the last few years, I spent 12 hours attending school, 16 hours working and 12 hours picking up cans. Each hour of picking up cans replaced at least 1.5 hours of wage-work. Without cans I would have needed an additional 18 to 24 hours working, more likely, the large number.

Can collecting was the thing that kept me from working fulltime while attending school.

Not to say that picking up cans was always the answer. There were times that, economically, I found it wasn't worth my time to collect.

There was a while when I collected cans during evening classes at school, but soon had to stop because of a group that didn't show up during the day: Janitors.

One building had a janitor who was very territorial. Every time she found me in her building she threatened to call the police on me. 

After getting caught a couple times by her, I started looking out and around for her, when a “fellow student” started recognizing me out in the hallway (clueing in the janitor as to my whereabouts), I learned to wait at the outer doors and run in when a class ended. The janitor then started waiting for the classes to end herself; I gave up on the building and its cans.

Giving up that building was bad enough, as it dropped my take from $10 to $7 for two hours. But another janitor started picking up cans at another building. It took a couple weeks to realize that another janitor was picking up cans; but the moment I found out I stopped – anything under $5 for two hours was not worth it.

Weekend nights in downtown East Lansing started out lucratively, but collections during this time went into a decline. There were various reasons for this – new parking lots and ramps were built, a crackdown on drinking by cops who wanted to score points with the “permanent residents,” and a couple of newer collectors who used bikes in their efforts made things tough. I still collected weekend nights, but I kept a close eye on the economics – if it started getting to the point where it wasn't worth collecting, I stopped for awhile.

3) Blue Moons Can Cause Bulging Wallets
The point of can collecting is, of course, to make money by picking up lots of cans...that you can't do if you're skipping the big hauls.

Two of the biggest hauls in college are Football Games, and Last Day of School.

A) Football Saturdays:
Catching The Spirit One Dime At A Time
I actually figured out there was money picking up cans during football games in the fall of 1986, but I only did one game – and got $15 overall. It was a decent total, but hardly worth knocking one's self out over.

My take would grow over time as I changed strategy in response to experiments and the changing landscape of the university. At first, I would work my way through a section of tailgates south of the stadium, to a south side entrance, and wait for about 15 minutes as the fans entered the stadium, for an average of $20 to $30 per game. 

Later on I would spend less time at the tailgate and more time waiting at my chosen entrance to pick up the cans; my take varied between $30 and $50.

Eventually, I developed a route that ignored tailgates, and spent more time by a south side gate by the football stadium, with the take varying between $30 and $60. About this time I started picking up cans after the game; this added an extra $20 on the top.

Then I began walking between the south side pair of gates. While this was a response to an increase in competition, I found my take had now increased to between $0 and $70 (pre-game). Finally, I found myself parking my car in such a way that I picked up cans as I walked to when I was parked; while it added a few buck, the main effect was to make returning the cans easier.

Of course, there were patterns to earnings. The first games are always the most lucrative, with the fans looking forward to the season. As the season ages, the team suffers its losses and the weather grows colder, the take drops.

B) End Of The Year:
Good-bye Brats, Hello Alexanders
At the end of the year the students who live in the dorms (and in apartment complexes, where they only rent during the school year) pack up everything they own and move out. When they do, they leave lots of things behind; newspapers, magazines, old notes, pillows, fans, blankets, CDs and CD storage crates, microwave ovens, lamps, textbooks, money (mainly collections of pennies, though I once found enough silver to pay for the day's worth of snacks and soda pop), Playboys, pornographic videos, all sorts of food and drinks, video game systems, even the occasional obsolete (and probably nonworking) computer. And bottles and cans – lots of bottles and cans.

A good can collector willing to hustle and gamble a bit can easily make $100 and still have daylight to enjoy. When I work the whole day I average $120-$130 on last days, although I have earned as much as $165 and as little as $80. I did pretty much the same things in both these years (and pretty much the same in others), but the year I did $165 everything went right, whereas with the $80 year, I seemed to catch everything at the wrong time.

Of course, if you want to collect cans on the last day of school, you'll have to keep working the whole day and be prepared to find almost anything. I always start with a good breakfast, and put a lot of one dollar bills and change in my pockets. I also wear a backpack that day, as you never know when you are about to run into a case of juices and a pack of cookies – not to mention sellable used textbooks.

One risk which I regularly take with my year-end can collecting is hiding the cans in nearby bushes for picking up later. One year I lost $40-50 because I hid the bags and someone followed me – this despite the caution I took not to be followed. The next year I found a bag of cans someone had left; while it didn't cover the earlier loss, the $15 within it was appreciated.
4) Scaling Back To Semi-Retirement
In 1990, I said “goodbye” to the day-to-day- can collecting. However, I never did stop picking up, just did it during games and at the end of the year. On occasion, I even went back to doing it day-to-day, with varying results.

A) The Daily Route, Two Slight Returns
In 1990, back in town and waiting for a part-time job to go fulltime, I found myself again doing the three hours per day, four days per week routine I had had a couple years ago. Amazingly, I found myself earning between $25 and $40 a day picking up cans. More amazingly, this kept up for four weeks and stopped only when the job I had finally became fulltime. Why this high level of earnings happened I have no idea, the only thing I can guess is that some of the regulars had stopped collecting at that time.

In 1990, forced by changes in my work schedule, I tried the old route again for a couple of days. I soon learned that things had become much less lucrative in the meantime – changes in class scheduling, the increase in juice and water containers at the expense of pop cans, and tighter competition had made getting every can harder, and the route that gave me $15 with little effort became a very rough $10, if that much. Two days was more than enough to persuade me to quit.

B) Year-End And Football Games:
Keeping My Left Foot In The Tins
I kept up the end-of-year collections after graduation. The can collecting stayed in the $10-$15 per hour range, with textbooks adding anywhere between $8 and $60 for the books.

For a few years after graduation I worked on Saturdays, and thus was unable to pick up during football games. When circumstances changed at work, I was able to resume can collecting during game days, and with changes to my collecting and parking patterns (including the closing of Munn Field to alcohol), I actually found myself going at a $90 per game day clip before called to care away for a friend.

C) Aluminum Thoughts
Do I miss the can collecting days? Sure I do. As a friend and fellow can collector told me, you had no limits on your hours, no boss, and the earnings were immediate. Can collecting was also a good workout. When Michigan State won a basketball championship in early 1990, and I ran from the MSU Union, to the “Sparty” statute, to the Breslin Center, before realizing I was not winded. I don't think I would be able to do so now, and to be honest, I wasn't able to do so before then.

Would I now suggest picking up cans on a daily basis? I would not, and for reasons I had seen during my years of can collecting.

First, the scene changed. Even when I first did collecting, I noticed there were more people entering can collecting than leaving it. I watched as my nighttime downtown route became overcrowded with bikers and oldsters with nothing better to do, and that pattern continued into the 1990s in the daytime and on Saturdays.

Second, students' tastes shifted. During the '80s, soda pop was the student's favored drink. There were self-serve all-you-care-to-drink soda pop fountains in the dorm cafeterias, can dispensers placed all over campus, and once the students moved out of the dorms, the convenience dens and liquor stores fed their habits with 32- and 44-ounce tubs of soda, and two-liter pop bottles.

This hasn't changed, but students' tastes have. They drink more juice, more punch and sports drinks, more bottled water, and less soda pop. While it may be healthier for the people drinking the water/juice/punch, it reduces can collector earnings; as only soda pop, beer and wine coolers count as returnables in most states that have deposits on them.

Then there is the hot-and-cold nature of can collecting. There are times when you can't pick up enough and times when there is nothing around and nothing to be expected. You either enter into this as a supplementary source of income, or you live frugally enough to hold onto money during the slow, slow periods.

And finally, there's the question of how can collecting affects the collectors. One of the things that drove me to retire from the daily can collecting grind back in 1990 was taking a good look at some of the steadier can collectors working the campus and noticed that there was something wrong with almost every one of them; whether it was their beliefs, their habits (one used children to pick up cans), or a past suppressed but never talked about. This turned into a fear for me: Will I become as disturbed as some of these people?

And that's why, even though I did very well collecting cans in early autumn 1991, I gladly took the five-day-a-week cab driving job.

Editor's Note: Don Hargraves is a Northwest Indiana-based writer and performance artist whose motto is "Drive because I must, write whenever I can."

Don was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, during the '70s and early '80s -- just in time to see the city start its long, slow decline. He graduated from Michigan State University in the 1990s with a B.A. in humanities, then spent some time after that working and getting a real education.

His first book, Suicide Alley, appeared this summer and is available on


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  2. It is what it is: you are what you are. That igloo's rather cold, isn't it? But you do get points for persistence. --The Reckoner