Manhattan Can Collectors After Sanitation Time Shift: ‘Sometimes, I Barely Sleep’

The sun has not risen when they leave their home, close to Jackie Robinson Park in northern Manhattan. A few minutes after 5:30 a.m, they take the C train and go to work. Socorro Maldonado and her husband, Rubén Maldonado, travel 15 minutes to Morningside Heights, where they have worked for more than 10 years collecting cans, plastic, and glass bottles. Their metal folding carts, the couple’s main tools, start the trip closed – but as soon as they come out of the subway, they unfold them and get to work. Socorro and Rubén speak Mixteco, their ancestral land’s language, to each other as they collect.

Last April, New York City’s Department of Sanitation pushed back the waste set-out hours to make life harder for the estimated 3 million rats residing in the five boroughs. Plastic bags that previously could be placed in the sidewalks as early as 4 p.m. now have to wait until 8 p.m.

Whether the strategy is disrupting the rodent population is unclear but one result is not in dispute: the change is making life harder for some human residents, such as buildings’ superintendents, who had to change their working hours to set out the garbage. Or, workers in restaurants, where set-out hours have also changed and, in many cases, have forced workers to go back after hours to set-out the trash. But the most affected are the canners, people who make their living by collecting bottles or cans in the streets, like Rubén and Socorro.

They wake up at 5 a.m. because now, at 6 a.m. they must be ready to work, due to the shift in waste set-out hours.

“Sometimes, I barely sleep,” says Socorro. “But now—six months later—I’m getting used to it.”

Before April, they started work at about 9 a.m., and worked until the afternoon, at around 5 p.m., when all the buildings had already put the garbage outside.

But now, some buildings set out their garbage at 6 a.m., before the sanitation truck passes, and others at 8 p.m. The Maldonado family must be there to gather bottles and cans, because it is their main source of income. More bottles means more money.

The street where they start collecting changes according to the day of the week. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest, because many buildings set-out their recycling waste those days and also, because people usually throw more cans and bottles away. Those days, their collecting path is longer.

“On Fridays we begin at 117th and Broadway, and then go down,” they say. When working together, the couple splits the job. One goes to the upper streets and the other goes to the lower ones. They usually cover between 129th and 110th St. Each has a small metal cart, covered with cardboard and with ropes to tie huge bags filled with cans that, if they have luck collecting, can be taller than them. Both work seriously and focused while separating the items or counting how many there are, but they smile every time someone known passes and says hi.

Socorro, looks younger than her 52 years. She’s a tough woman, who arrived in the US in her 30s from her home city Xalapa in México. She said that started collecting in 2011 or 2012 after seeing others collecting cans. She followed the lead of others and approached superintendents to ask if they had plastic bottles or cans.

“I put the youngest of my three daughters—who is now fifteen—in her baby carriage, and started walking the streets,” Socorro said. The years have caught up with her, and now, her bones ache from the bending required to collect, she said. “I didn’t want to work doing this, but I have to.”

“I remember that when we were kids, after school, we came to help mum. She bought us something to eat and we sat and played or did our homework,” said Luz, the eldest of the three Maldonado daughters. “When we finished, we returned home to cook or to see our telenovela together.”

When working, sometimes Socorro likes to listen to music. Pensaba encontrarte hoy feliz, feliz, feliz, que decepción. Si ya olvidaste mi amor, dimelo, dimelo, dimelo. Lloras y no sabes qué decir, quién me ha robado tu corazón. Socorro Maldonado listens to a heartbroken song by Los Temerarios, the Mexican Grupera band, while she works. The song is about a man who returns to his loved one, but now, she loves another man. “Do you know they are going to separate,” she asks, referring to the band. “But my middle daughter bought tickets and we are going to their concert.” On another hard working day, it makes her happy.

Rubén and Socorro understand the logic of the streets. They know the spots where they can have a little rest, where there are free available restrooms, which superintendent will help them, which church will give them some food. Also, after working 10 years in the same area, they know every frequent character: the construction workers, the deliveristas, superintendents and handymen of each building, the houseless neighbors that live nearby. Socorro has also built up a network with superintendents. “Some of them let us take the recyclable items before they set them out,” she said.

Step by step, she goes down the stairs with her cart to the basement of the buildings that let her take the garbage before the trucks pass by. She makes a call and is allowed to enter.

The superintendent at 113th and Broadway gives her about twelve big bags with trash that the residents of the building have tossed as recyclable, but that, in fact, is a weird mix: Cold tea, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Poland Spring water, sparkling water, beer, all useful cans and bottles to sell, but also bloody plastic trays from chicken or pork, paper that should not be there, human hair, disinfectants, and degreasers.

The bags with cleaning supply-related garbage smell much better than the others. Some cans have mysterious objects clicking inside and some plastic bottles are still filled with liquid.

Socorro wears gloves and has to separate the items to get what is useful for her.

The unuseful waste goes back to the litter bins of the basement. She puts everything in order, her cart with the new acquisitions and the garbage bags lined up in the basement. Then, she goes upstairs carrying filled bags, which is a harder task. “Sometimes I don’t take glass bottles because they are too heavy,” she says. This time around, she takes 86.

She’s been doing this the whole morning. At midday, someone tells her that volunteers are giving out food at Broadway Presbyterian Church. She goes there to have lunch and meets her husband. After eating, they will separate the cans and bottles. This is the second part of the job.

Poland Spring water bottles go together, Coca-Cola bottles have their own bag, as do Pepsi bottles; with cans, the label does not matter. In a few minutes, they fill plastic bags with more than 500 of them, which will earn them $25. Twenty cans make $1 . The Returnable Container Act, commonly called the Bottle Bill, is the rule established in the 1980s that requires redemption centers and retailers to reimburse a deposit for the cans and bottles. Since it was enacted in 1982 the reimbursements have been set at $.05, and are still the same.

“A really good day, I can make $70 or $80. But a bad week, as the one when it rained a lot and we could not work, it could be $50 in total, for the seven days, but that’s enough for weekly food,” said Socorro.

Before the waste hour times changed, she enjoyed cooking for her family. “Now, I’m never at home,” she said.

Pushing the set-out time back four hours for households was intended to disrupt dining habits of the city’s rodents. “If rats can’t feed, they can’t breed,” said Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the Sanitation Department. “Almost a third of trash collection in the city’s highest density areas is now done at midnight, rather than 6 a.m.,” she said. This means that the vast majority of the city’s garbage still sits on the streets until the trucks pass between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.

“Changing from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. will not accomplish much alone,” said Robert Corrigan, an urban rodentologist. But the specialist points out that in a major context of improving trash collection practices and waste management, the rat population will decrease. Nonetheless, it could take several years.

At about 3 p.m. on a recent afternoon, Socorro and Rubén had some time to rest. But they still had five more hours to go until 8 p.m., when the next set-out would be done by the buildings. Nonetheless, they called some superintendents that allow them to pick up the trash before.

It’s getting dark earlier.

“When winter comes, I’ll use just two pants and two sweaters. You are moving, so it’s not that cold,” Socorro said. Later in the evening, their eldest daughter, Luz Maldonado, who has finished her shift at the supermarket where she works, came to help.

In the street of the Seventh Church of Christ, Scientist, at 112th Str. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave, huge filled bags are stacked. “Four or five months ago, we were robbed,” Rubén Maldonado said with sadness. The thief took the recyclable items that they had spent the whole day collecting. So, now, they take turns watching the bags.

At about half past nine, a medium size fat rat crossed the street and ran through the front yard of one of the buildings. The animal goes inside, where the garbage to be set out in the morning is kept. The rat had no problem passing through the grid that divides the “inside” from the “outside,” which marks the border between where the trash is inside the building and not yet set out or outside the building and ready to be picked up by sanitation trucks.

The last thing to do is make a phone call. The family works with a private trucking company that buys the recyclable items from them and resells to another company. Every can and bottle has already been properly arranged in the bags. Luz makes the call and then it’s just waiting. The street is narrow, so when the truck comes, they will have to hurry to put the bags inside.

At about 11 p.m., a huge yellow truck turns around the corner. Socorro, Luz and Rubén lift the bags in pairs and then throw them into the backside of the truck. There’s fun in this activity, they smile and laugh. And laugh again when they have finished.

The calculation of how many plastic and glass bottles and cans there are is made in a piece of cardboard, an abacus of sorts. They finished it before the truck came, calculating how many were in each bag.

The cardboard check is analyzed by the yellow trucks’ driver. Then, he pays about $80. It’s half past eleven, and Socorro and her family are ready to finally head home on this day. They start to walk slowly with their empty carts toward the nearest subway station. A slight rain began as they turned the corner on 112th Street, passing by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Tomorrow would be a new day and she would be ready to work.

About the author(s)

María Gabriela Cisterna is an Argentinian philosopher and journalist. Through audio and written pieces, she covers stories from Latin America.