Since the fall of 2014, OIKOS has been collaborating with a non-profit bottle redemption center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Sure We Can. We have been working with them to strategize their expansion into a sustainability center. The planned growth will better support their bottle redemption operation, create a more robust composting program, a teaching garden and an urban-sustainability learning center.
Sure We Can is New York City’s only nonprofit redemption center. It is made for and run by canners, people who collect bottles and cans on the street and redeem them as a source of income. Canning is an appealing source of income for over 6000 New Yorkers for a variety of reasons: some don’t speak english well and therefore have trouble getting other jobs, some are elderly people trying to do productive things with their time, some struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, but all benefit from the flexibility of the work - making their own hours and not having to report to a boss.
Many canners in the city work alone and bring their cans to a grocery stores to redeem 5 cent deposits on them from a machine. The store in turn receives a 3.5 cent handling fee for every bottle they process. Sure We Can’s model is different. The canners at Sure We Can live and collect their bottles in Bushwick and the neighboring high density areas. They sort them together at Sure We Can, so collectively they are able to receive 8.5 cents for every bottle sorted. This money pays canners for sorting & collecting, four staff members and rent on the Sure We Can property. This model of canning differs from the grocery store model, because Sure We Can is able to provide a community space and much needed support network for canners. Canners are a hard working group of people working on the fringe of New York City’s economy and society, they play a vital but mostly invisible role in cleaning our streets and improving our environment.
As of late, Sure We Can has run into a major issue, their landlord has put their lot up for sale. Sure We Can has been exploring ways to secure their lot at 219 McKibbin Street, including appealing to their local council people and looking to a newly formed Real Estate Investment Cooperative to loan them money to help purchase their property or have it held in trust for their organization. So far some money has been pledged, but nothing near what is required to secure the land and develop it to it’s fullest potential as a sustainability center. Without a government intervention and/or corporate sponsorship, Sure We Can operates at the risk of having their land sold out from under them leaving their already vulnerable community without an alternative. As gentrification pushes deeper into Brooklyn, it is critical that organizations such as Sure We Can, whose services rely on density, can remain.
We’d also like to explore another option for funding, unredeemed bottle deposits. For every redeemable bottle made for sale in New York State, the distributor is paid an extra 8.5 cents from retailers so that the bottle can later be redeemed. However, many bottles are put in recycling bins in residences and commercial buildings and are picked up by the city’s sanitation system. Those bottles never get redeemed, so what happens to the 8.5 cent? Who’s money is that? We would argue it’s yours.
Since 1982 when the bottle bill was passed, New Yorkers have paid extra money on every bottle we’ve purchased with the assumption that it will be returned and redeem. However, until recently if you didn’t return that bottle, that money was kept by beverage distributors. Eight and half cents may seem like small change, but it historically has added up to millions of dollars in extra revenue for beverage distributors. In 2008, policy makers recognized that that money didn't really belong to distributors, and amended the law so now 80% of that unredeemed money goes to the New York State government. In 2013, the law was changed again stipulating that that 80% should go to the EPA’s fund for New York State. But we still wonder a few things: who’s money is that? why do distributors get to keep 20% of that money? should the 80% go to the EPA or should it actually go specifically to recycling related funding? In 2014, $15 million of the EPA’s funding came from unredeemed bottles. While the EPA is a worthwhile investment, it seems to us that that money should be used in the spirit of the bottle bill, which was created to incentivize recycling and reduce litter.
Sure We Can collects and returns seven million bottles per year, many of which would at best end up in a landfill and at worst end up in our oceans. Sure We Can acts as a vital source for sustainability for the city, not just environmentally but also culturally. The organization cleans up our environment, is improving it with new initiatives for composting and urban farming, provides a social and professional network for a marginalized population and teaches school children about urban sustainability. We propose using unredeemed bottle money to help Sure We Can secure their lot. Is it logical? Yes. Is it feasible? Tell us what you think.