Sunday, October 20, 2013

Finding the Empty and Bringing it Back to Life

A mother of four from Ecuador collects bottles and cans in the film Redemption.
Their bounty rattles down the streets of New York in clear garbage bags flowing over the sides of shopping carts. Their success depends on their efficiency and endurance, as they track down trash and hunt for bottles and cans once filled with things sweet and delicious.

It's hard to imagine these "canners" don't feel the pity, disgust, and fear from those more fortunate, from those who can't understand why anyone would collect that many recyclables. But the canners do what they have to survive. The documentary Redemption -- produced by Downtown Community Television Center and available on HBO on Demand -- shares the stories of a few of them. There's Susan from the Bronx, a former IBM saleswoman who needs more than social security to make ends meet; Walter, a former bouncer at the Chelsea Hotel, who's been living under the West Side Highway for 25 years; and there's Nuve, a mother of four from Ecuador who collects empties every day to support her family.

The film is quite understated: in 35 minutes, it depicts the typical day of canners and gives them a chance to talk about their lives. For me, it was tough to make sense of the canning phenomenon. Why are our taxes paying for each can or bottle redeemed? Why can't the money be used to provide jobs to some of these canners and give them a second chance at life?

I know it's complicated. The New York City Sanitation Department has enough employees; replacing them with canners will only make the problem worse. But like the canners, we have to be creative and work hard to find solutions. I don't know the answer, but I do know one thing: we won't find the solution in a bag full of empties.  

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