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The Can Man: Collecting Bottles and Redeeming the Planet
September 11, 2015
by Peter Hamilton
Tall walls of orderly stacked firewood border the lane that winds toward his home as if journeying through a cordwood ravine, a canyon of wood-grained stratifications. Each log cut the same length, and then fitted trimly into a timbered mosaic. At first it could be seen as an intimidating rampart, but it’s not. Contrarily, the path is a welcomely channel, directing quests to his home. At the last bend, his house appears. It is a humble greeting. There’s a garage—more barn-like than suburb—into which the lane terminates. A door opens; The Can Man waves.
     
He is slender, a palm under six-feet tall, a ball cap makes him taller. He approaches wearing khaki pants with large cargo pockets for storing things. He points at where I should park with a motion that also says that I not run into the many enormous trash bags there. The bags overflow with aluminum cans, majorly beer. 
     
He sees I’ve noticed them. “Goodness gracious,” he says, “I didn’t drink all those; some others did,” then kicking at a bag with a walk-worn work boot clarifies, “They threw them away.”
   
Away being: along roadsides, at camp grounds, around parking lot edges, inside dumpsters, and into, with unusual consideration by the discarders, trash receptacles. The cans are collected temporarily; he’ll return them to a Beverage Container Redemption Center.
 
The Can Man requested that I not use his actual name. He prefers that his recycling activities be anonymous. His brother is a well-known carpenter-builder; his parents are prominent grape farmers. He winks, “Can Man is fine.”
 
We walk into the garage. He says, “Also, much of what I do is unlawful." Unlawful to whom? 
 
“The laws which puzzle perfectly good common sense,” he says, declaring it not as opinion but proclamation. He believes there are statutes “which regulate against common sense”.
 
For example: he has gone beyond the “Authorized Personnel Only” signs to retrieve recyclables from containers full of things that won’t be; taken food from dumpsters; overturned trash cans to remove eco-friendly recyclables, and in the process, distributes them to “Not at all,” he smiles, refusing to accept the Robin Hood reference.   
 
His name, “The Can Man”, was assigned some years past by those drinking campers, highway discarders, and receptacle users because of his seemingly omnipresence as he collects cans along the roads, the trails, the alley dumpsters throughout the area. He’s hiked into wilderness areas: the Chautauqua Gorge, Rails-to-Trails. He’s a self-appointed litter remover with a simple motive. To do what he can to save the environment.
 
And not fully altruistic; he gets a nickel for each litter item removed. He tells me that on many days he’ll collect perhaps 800 cans. “Five cents apiece.” He invites me to consider the math. Inside the garage, I do. Twenty is a dollar.
 
His garage stores a kayak, a canoe, safe-animal traps, dozens of empty banana boxes. The garage is the cleaning, sorting, and processing center for his daily collections. He raises just one of the trash bags, “240 cans!”  Soda, energy drink, juices—of course beers. “This is the allowable daily return limit.” Meaning, the maximum can-count an individual is permitted to in any 24 hour period.  Although, and quite often, he’ll go to several different “allowable daily return limit” stations in a day. Unlawfully.
 
“I used to collect glass bottles, too,” as he tosses one into a special bin. The garage leads into his house.
 
2014 was a very good year; he’d collected over 400,000 cans. More math. Almost twenty-thousand dollars—more anonymity. It was mid-summer as we spoke. He said he’d gathered about 200,000 containers so far. It’s not clean and easy work. Often the containers are full of nasty things: slugs, dead mice, snakes.
 
“But not all glass containers can be returned for money.”  He acknowledged that much, unfortunately, of glass nowadays basically goes into landfills, “even the glass at the recycle centers around the county.”  In the past, he’d spoken to a landfill operator and was told that the glass is indeed separated from other materials, but doesn’t necessarily go back into glass manufacturing; not recycled like aluminum. The landfill glass is crushed into an aggregate, mixed with gravel then buried to create a stratum as part of a landfill’s interment process. Like a sieve for liquids. “Which I suppose is okay,” he allowed, conceding that at least in that manner the recycling process had some kind of acceptable use. “Albeit, not at all really very useful.” 
 
The Can Man doesn’t pretend to have a larger political agenda. It’s solely a personal mission. One that he freely admits “Makes me some money.”  Is he able to support himself?
 
“Yes, sir!” It’s not exclusively the recycles that supports his lifestyle. He retrieves edible food from rubbish bins. Dumpster Diving is unlawful, hence his anonymity. “But, I eat well, and cheaply.” He showed me his grocery storage: flattened cheese; a package of hamburger buns, some crushed; a cereal box, not all undamaged. “Yesterday I got a box of Milky Ways!” Another day, Yoplait yogurt.
 
He opens his refrigerator, cooled to the 40’s with batteries charged by an off-the-grid generator, the contents that of a well-stocked grocery. Five pounds of ground beef in the bottom drawer, “Lately, it’s been a lot of citrus fruits.”  Indeed. Grapefruits, oranges, a pineapple, some nectarines, as if a private stash of fruit stand seconds. With his pocket knife he cuts away the dark bruises, passing me a slice.    
 
About a year after we’d had our interview, I found him at an outdoor festival leaning into a trash bin as if a raccoon.  Standing then human-like, he prided, “This is great!”  He and the large bags he had in each hand strolled away to another brimming trash receptacle. 
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