The city of New York takes recycling very seriously. Building supers and business owners can get hefty fines (pun intended) for not properly sorting their trash and recycling. They are both to be left on the curbsie for pickup, though on different days, and the latter is to be bagged in blue transparent plastic rather than opaque black or clear plastic.
This is also one of those states where virtually any plastic bottle can be redeemed for ¢5 .
So perhaps it's not surprising that there are individuals who traverse the city, collecting those blue plastic bags in shopping carts and schlepping them to grocery stores and pharmacies. I've seen these people all over the city and always wondered about them - are they homeless? Do they really make much money? Is it worth the trouble?
I greatly respected the work that they do and even fantasized about one day having the expendable income to give them a 20 and a hearty "thank you." At the same time I've had some apprehensions about them - could they be dangerous? - and I never bothered to strike up a conversation or otherwise get to know my neighborhood recycling redeemers.
Then last night, as I approached my familiar treasure trove outside of Morton Williams supermarket on Broadway and 115th, I was finally confronted by one of them.
He was firendly in his address but I assumed he was going to beg for money, which I almost certainly would have turned down. I didn't know yet that he had collected three large bags of bottles for redemption, as they were leaning against the wall of the market, about twenty feet away.
"If you take one of those bags into the store for me we can split the money."
I was impressed and intrigued by his hustle but "Why can't you take it yourself?"
"They only let me take one hundred bottles, one bag."
I agreed to help him out and set myself to food rescue while he redeemed a first bag. I overheard him telling the owner, "no, those are his bags," pointing to the other two bags leaning against the wall.
"Boss!" I looked over and nodded in agreement.
Once he returned, I went to redeem the second bag. The owner stood conspicuously in the doorway, holding another bag open as I transferred the bottles one by one, as quickly as possible. He appeared annoyed. I don't think he was counting the bottles and I certainly wasn't either. So I presume he arbitrarily decided when there were a hundred of them. He pulled away and began tying the bag, directing me to the checkout line for my five bucks.
I made the line and within a few minutes I was out the door with the money. I gave three of the five to my business partner and proceeded to rescue my food for the coming week. He asked which way I would be headed from there, wondering whether I could accompany him to the next store. I had already got off to a late start and wouldn't have time to go with him, I said. And before I could look up to introduce myself and give a proper farewell, he was halfway down the next block. His identity may remain a mystery for some time, but I'm glad to have caught a glimpse of the recycling redeemer's way of life.For more info on these folks, check out this article published in the Bronx Journal in June 2011.