Have you ever wondered how people make a living by collecting cans and bottles from trash cans? Do you want to learn more about “canning” and how “canners” survive in New York City? Do you enjoy documentaries? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I highly recommend that you watch HBO’s Redemption (2012) which was directed and produced by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill. Although the documentary was released three years ago, I only came across it by accident while trying to kill time on a long flight home a few months ago. Redemption tells the stories of real people trying to survive by canning, tales that some of us may not be familiar with and may even find surprising.
Canners, also referred to as collectors, are people who make their living on the sidewalks and alleys of the city. They are compelled to collect discarded cans and bottles and redeem them for small weekly sums of money to cover living expenses. One of the key lessons from Redemption is that there is no typical canner. The individuals featured in the documentary vary in their race/ethnic background, age, employment status, and living situation. Examples include a Vietnam war veteran, a former computer sales executive at IBM, a homeless man originally from Japan, a woman living in a tiny apartment in Chinatown, and a mother of four from Ecuador. Some canners are full-timers who may be out on the streets for as many as 20 hours a day, while others do it part time to make some extra money.
Canning may look easy, but as the documentary shows, it sure is a hard way to live. Canners face a variety of daily challenges, such as finding a sufficient amount of cans and bottles, protecting the items they collected from competitors and thieves, trying to communicate with one another when they do not even speak the same language, and finding a place to sleep (for those who are homeless). I was amazed to learn how the folks featured on the documentary dealt with and overcome these problems. For example, I was touched by Nuve who said in Spanish, “What are we supposed to do? There’s no work.” She collects cans all day with her youngest son after dropping her other kids off at school. It is obvious that she is a dedicated, loving mom who is just trying to give her children a better future. I also connected with Lilly, a cheerful, Cantonese-speaking (my mother tongue) canner in Chinatown, who lives with six others in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. She is actually fortunate in comparison to homeless canners who sleep on park benches or at redemption centers (where cans and bottles can be redeemed). Lilly helps out her friend John, a homeless Japanese canner, who used to work at the World Trade Center, by giving him a shave and cutting his hair from time to time. The two have known each other for years, but are unable to communicate because of their language barrier.
As someone who lives in Downtown Los Angeles and work in Koreatown, I see homeless individuals and/or canners on a daily basis. Even though this is the case, watching Redemption was still an eye-opening experience. I suppose this is because I simply do not know the stories and background of the homeless or canners I walk by on the street. The documentary also prompted me to do some research and reading on the “profession” of waste picking. A waste picker (a more general term that can include a canner) is someone who salvages recyclable or reusable materials thrown away by others for sale/redemption value or for personal consumption. While some may associate waste pickers with Third World or developing countries, it is obvious that they exist in post-industrial countries as well, especially in major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. By watching Redemption, we can all become more informed about canning and better understand the livelihood of those who have no choice but to rely upon canning to survive.
Photo credit: Screenshots from http://redemptionthemovie.com/
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.