Confessions of a Bag Lady 1: Two Things I Learned Collecting Beer Cans for Money

As some of you may know, Ania and I spent a long time in a very difficult financial situation.  Between when she needed to stop formal employment for health reasons and very recently, we officially had only my income for our survival.  Unfortunately, that income was not quite sufficient for our fixed expenses, let alone buying groceries, so we had to scramble to make the necessary extra money…every month…for over a year.  We did what we could to reduce our expenses and put off a lot of eventually necessary purchases until her Ontario Disability Support Payments began, including writing expensive things like seafood almost completely out of our diets, but there was no getting around the need for more money.  As I am legally prevented from taking on much employment by my visa status (and it would have been a bad idea for my schooling anyway), a lot of this fell on her, and she did her level best to sell art and food and run errands for our neighbors, all the while looking for work she would survive doing.  For my part, I took on the unenviable task of collecting alcohol containers to return for deposit.  And in the year and change I spent doing that, I learned a few things.

1.     It’s a Second Job…Complete with Occupational Hazards

We have the good fortune to live in a very large apartment complex with an indoor recycling room.  We also have the good fortune that, as a graduate student, I spend about half my waking hours at a university, and university students like to drink.  I already spend more of my time than I care to admit checking certain waste-dumping areas at the university for useful items, and I’ve furnished apartments and offices with the stuff I’ve found that way.  That’s what gave me the idea to search these waste areas more exhaustively as a way to make extra money.  That, and the building-mate who handed me a case of bottles one time because she needed them out of her house to keep her from relapsing.

Searching the recycling room at our building daily became a 40+-minute errand.  It grew from something I’d do by hand, to something I’d do with a canvas sack I found at the university, to something I did with six storage bins on a Wal-Mart Garden Center flatbed cart I found at a bus stop…every day.  When I say “more exhaustively,” I mean it.

I was lucky.  I had a dedicated recycling room to search.  That meant that regular trash, with all of its moldy fruit and cat litter, went down the trash chute and away from where I spent close to an hour every afternoon digging through lower-middle-class leavings.  It also meant that I would be doing this indoors all year, away from Canadian winter.  It turns out, though, that no one ever cleans communal recycle bins, so I still came home with black and red stains I tried not to identify in case the truth of my activities would erode my mind.  The containers I had to dig through to find what I wanted were too often rimed with their original contents and whatever accumulated slime had worked its way that far down into the bin.  I was still pawing through bins of glass dropped from 1.5 meters above the ground and cans mechanically opened and never closed.  I came back from my scavenging expeditions with cuts on my right hand every few trips, always worried I’d catch some terrible blood-borne disease.  I had youth on my side, though—I don’t even have scars.  My neck and head conditions didn’t appreciate occasionally dropping the lids of those big bins on my head and hands when I had to get halfway inside them to search them, though.

It took a toll on our home as well.  We had to store our finds in our pantry, which we were lucky to have at all.  We had a balcony we didn’t use much, especially in winter, but storing a bunch of malty and sweet trash there would have drawn the friendly neighborhood wasps and flies to fight us for it, not to mention rain and wind.  So we kept the top shelf of the pantry clear for bottles and cans.  As our operation grew, it crept into open spaces between our food containers, and into piles of trash bags full of…trash…on the floor of the pantry, stacked four high, two across, and three deep.  I kept it sorted as I went to make cashing it in easier, which made the spectacle of holding all of that refuse all the more absurd.  I had to use one of those gripper handles that custodians use for collecting trash to find and move items at the back of the pantry because the wall of trash made them impossible to reach otherwise.  The floor in and near the pantry always had a sticky patina of beer and soda leakage from the trash bags, which only added to the miasma of stale yeast and sickly-sweet corn syrup that wafted at us whenever we opened the door.  We cleaned the floor, because it was gross and we didn’t want to attract vermin, but there was a sense of futility about it, because the next load was never more than seven days away.

This is how we got tomato paste out of the pantry.
This is how we got tomato paste out of the pantry.

Because bottles and cans run from $0.05 to $0.20, depending on their size and where one takes them.  And we brought them in ~750 at a time, every week.  That’s about $200 extra every month at our peak.  Redeeming refuse wasn’t a hobby for us—it was a second job, paying a little less than minimum wage based on the time we put into it. It was the right job for us, though, because no hours are more flexible than “collect wherever and whenever you happen to be and before 10 PM when the trash room closes, and redeem whenever the Beer Store is open.”Every weekend, we loaded the cart all over again with the bottles and cans we’d found in the previous week and loaded that into the car that way.  We arranged the furniture to make sure the cart always had a clear path.  We couldn’t load the car as we went, because we’d sometimes need the trunk or back seat for other purposes; it would have made the car heavier and cost us more in gasoline; and we had that bare minimum of pride to maintain in not having a car constantly full of other people’s smelly refuse.  On cash-in day, we’d have so much stuff that I’d sit in the passenger seat with a bag on my lap, because every other available space (including the front foot-well) was full of items for redemption.  Making right turns on the way to the recycling center was a harrowing affair.  And we constantly rethought our system to both store more and deliver more, because that full car-load would get us $40-$72.

A second job, with bloody, contagious, verminous occupational hazards.  But that was us.

2.     Everyone Judges You, and it Kills Your Sense of Shame

Judgement is omnipresent if you’re a scavenger.  In hallways, you look like a drunk, but not just any drunk.  If they see you once with more alcohol containers than they’ll produce in a decade, they think you’re a party animal doing a yearly cleanup.  And then they see you with that same volume every week, and the whole calculus changes in their heads.  You look like the kind of drunk whose friends hold “stop holding interventions for that lost cause” interventions for each other.  The volume of alcohol that would have been in a week’s worth of loot is enough to kill someone two or three times over, or get them blind, staggering, passing-out-naked-in-a-parking-lot-and-waking-up-in-a-different-parking-lot-in-someone-else’s-clothes drunk every night for a week.  And that’s you, every single week.  You start telling everyone who looks at you on cash-in day that you’ve been collecting to make extra money, maybe even share details that you’d otherwise think are too personal for strangers in the elevator, so that they don’t spread rumors about you, but you’re never sure if they believe you.

Meanwhile, we managed to keep most of our hoard safely sequestered in the pantry, but a separate area at the other end of the apartment eventually started holding beer boxes, because we figured out we could bring more containers at a time if we held on to boxes we found and filled them with loose bottles and cans.  Enough of that, and you’re a terrifying drunk on cash-in day and the world’s saddest hoarder the rest of the time.  (Did I mention that the layout of our apartment was dictated by this gig?)

It’s not any better when people see you collecting.  As our operation grew, I branched out to more university bins and the bins at the bus stops I frequented, but collecting out in public has its own connotations.  People have offered me food and drink while I was rifling through public bins, thinking I was homeless.  The first time that happened, I was so taken aback that I thought the person was asking me for food, and I thought, I’m looking through a garbage bin, do you think I have money to buy strangers bagels?  Wearing a hand-me-down coat that is at least 25 years old (it’ll be my favorite right up until it disintegrates) on top of a sweater whose cuffs are falling off (they have defied my sewing skills) probably didn’t help me not look like one of Ottawa’s vagrants.  It certainly didn’t help me figure out how to tell people to save their generosity for the genuinely destitute.

Of course, when they find out that you’re not whatever level of eating-your-shoes poor they think ought to be collecting refuse for pocket change, reactions vary extensively.  We’ve had our share of people respond well, offering to hang on to their own leavings for us and spare us the trouble of finding them covered in bin mulm later that week or bringing us things like ham that we would never have bought on our own under those conditions.  Other people, though, treat a scavenger with a home like a reverse Robin Hood, who steals from the homeless.

And I couldn’t say a word about it to my family, because the only responses were exhortations to fix our situation some other, any other way (and they had one specific, deeply unjust way in mind) and shouted invectives about me making them look bad by being so far from them and needing to redeem beer cans for grocery money.

When you’re surrounded by that level of judgment from all quarters, eventually, you go all-in.

As it turns out, it’s easy to stock an entire basic kitchen with the stuff people dump in the recycling room when they move out.  Cutlery, plates, cups, frying pans…people throw away enormous quantities of things whose sole failure of utility was being heavy at the wrong time.  Recycling rooms are also impressive sources of jewelry boxes (seriously), old books, picture frames, and bathroom supplies.  I’m still using shampoo I found in someone’s “moving sale.”  After a while, raiding the recycling room becomes a combination day job and shopping trip, especially at the beginning and end of a month when tenants change.  And then there was a time when I found a heap of discarded textbooks and redeemed one of them for $45.  Remember that $200 monthly haul?  Textbook month was 25% better because of one item.

Eventually, whatever shame I might have had eroded even farther, and I started keeping the closed containers of food I sometimes found.  People honestly throw away entire boxes of cookies and chocolate, unopened.  People throw away intact cans of soda, dry rice, and beans whose expiration dates are years in the future.  Recovering alcoholics throw away boxes of beer bottles when only half of them are empty.  In no position to justify buying cookies when we were stretching our leftovers as long as we could, those snacks were a sought-after indulgence.  I used to particularly look forward to the tube of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles that would show up about once a month, bafflingly regular and bafflingly intact.  I even brought back things like Labatt Blue and Red Bull that I don’t even drink, as long as the containers were still complete, because our friends did drink those and it helped us be better hosts.  I never told them that’s where those things came from, though.

Can of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles.
This was an unspeakable treat.

Eventually, I got shameless enough that I nyoinked a half-empty wine bottle from a discarded room-service tray at a hotel and finished it at a Cards Against Humanity party elsewhere in the hotel.  After spending months diligently collecting Corona bottles filled with moldy lemons and cigarette butts and eating Oreos I found next to hundreds of Celine Dion cassette tapes, it didn’t even register as an odd thing to do.  Also, it turned out to be fantastic wine.

Confessions of a Bag Lady 1: Two Things I Learned Collecting Beer Cans for Money

5 thoughts on “Confessions of a Bag Lady 1: Two Things I Learned Collecting Beer Cans for Money

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    Great article. We’ve recently become dumpster divers because we have six chickens who like the lettuce thrown out by the grocery store. Of course we couldn’t stop there, and my wife now regularly brings home “rescue” vegetables and fruit.

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