On a recent Wednesday night, on the corner of Riverside Drive and West 89th Street, blue plastic bags full of empty cans and emptied bottles looked like a pile of rubbish to passersby. But for a group of family members in Queens, led by Jeanett Pilatacsi, they symbolize a livelihood.
Each bag is filled with about 200 discarded beverage containers—each worth 5 cents when redeemed at the recycling center in Elmsford, New York. Little by little, all this aluminum and plastic provided income for the Pilatacsi clan.
On the most lucrative days, ambitious canners can accumulate 100 returnable blue bags that add up to a $1,000 profit.
Pilatacsis is not alone. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 New Yorkers make money by collecting cans, bottles and plastic containers and returning them to outlets for refunds, according to Ryan Castalia, executive director of the nonprofit Sure We Can Exchange. Of these, about 100 make a living from canned food. Last month, it was reported that millionaire landlord Lisa Fiekowsky is known for collecting cans and bottles around Brooklyn and redeeming them.
Ray del Carmen, who lives in Brooklyn and is now a manager at Sure We Can, says the savviest can collectors know that some days are more lucrative than others. While his full-time canning days are behind him — he still helps his girlfriend who makes a living collecting cans — he remembers a vacation most fondly.
“Stone. St. Patrick’s Day is the best day ever,” Del Carmen told The Post. “Everybody started drinking very early. So, from 2pm to 4am, going from bar to bar, between 42nd and 45th, I made $800 a day working alone. They Throw away the empty bottles and cans, I took them.”
Another hot spot is Flash Dancers. He remembers a policy of using jiggle-joints to push customers to buy drinks. “In four or five hours, I can get 2,400 bottles” – that would generate $120.
Here are three stories about canned collectors, immigrants who arrived on American shores with no money and limited skills. Looking for gold in other people’s trash, they turned themselves into small entrepreneurs and discovered their American dream.
While wealthy New Yorkers scoff at can collectors hauling recyclables around luxury neighborhoods, Jeanett Pilatacsi, 38, says it’s a career that brings self-esteem and pays well .
“It’s better than my previous job at a candle factory,” she told The Post. “Too long for too little money. Now, I work with my family, from noon to 8pm, collecting cans until we fill the truck.”
The bags were shipped in a white 2021 Mercedes Benz Sprinter van on credit. Sometimes vehicles and family members work overtime: “We’d go out from 1am to 2am to collect bottles and cans before the bar closed.”
Their return tonight will be in cash, and when a truck pulls up from Elmsford-based recycling company Galvanize Group to take the load, it will be more than $600 for a full day’s work.
Smaller extra bags can hold glass, but, says Pilatacsi, “the bottles are the hardest part. They’re too heavy.” They also pay the same 5 cents per container as aluminum and plastic — since 1983 , this amount has always existed, when 5 cents is now worth 15 cents.
Although Pilatacsi and her family of a dozen are comfortable making money this way, the business started out of necessity.
“Fifteen years ago, my father lost his job in construction,” she said. “It was scary. We didn’t know how to pay the rent. He went out with a shopping cart and started collecting cans. Now that he’s retired, we’ve taken over.”
In the beginning, she added, he was accumulating 30 cases of returnable items a week. Now, on their best days, family members have collected up to 100 bags, which is a good deal for $1,000.
Their decision to treat canning as a business made this possible, she said. They learn the value of building relationships with doormen and porters to gain access to their discarded treasures and ignore haters. “Sometimes people tell me we’re digging garbage,” she explained, rolling her eyes. “But we don’t care. We know what we’re doing.”
All 12 collection workers are related and live together at the Rego Park house they own. Pilatacsi said their profits from canning paid all their bills. When they’re not working, they eat together, help raise each other’s children, and share the thousands of dollars they can earn each week.
After a day of canning in Manhattan, where they tend to forage on 99th to 86th Streets, Pilatacsi likes to unwind with pre-bed showers, family dinners, and TV shows, before waking up and starting over the next morning.
The children help collect the cans every now and then when they are not in school. Pilatacsi’s nephew, 11-year-old Nelson, plans to go to college and recently put in work in the last days of summer. Over the weekend, he said, “We all take it easy and go to the park together.”
For Mario Palonci, a 70-year-old immigrant from the Czech Republic, canning is a lifeline.
A reformed alcoholic – “I drink 20 or 30 cans of beer a day,” he told the Post. “Beer, beer, beer…” – He has been living on the street after construction work dried up, and now he lives in a shelter in Brooklyn, collecting 2,000 cans of beer a night to make up for the financial shortfall, when he When you muster your energy to do it.
“Most of the people who worked all night went home,” Palonchi told The Washington Post. “I spend all morning sorting through my cans, sorting them, putting them in the right bags. It’s hard work, but for me it’s the best work.”
Besides offering money, he said it earned his respect. “I work on Bedford Street,” said Palonci, who says he has type 2 diabetes and uses a cart to deliver his exchangeable goods. “The bar owner knows me and knows I don’t mess around. I’m a professional.”
The shelter provided him with meals, but the money from the canning provided Palonchi with other necessities. In addition to extra food, transportation and clothing, he said, “I have to have cigarettes and the Internet. I need to watch the news at home.”
For Josefa Marin, an immigrant from Mexico, collecting cans means a better future for her children. In the early 2000s, her daughter was commuting from home to Briarcliffe College on Long Island, and Marin had struggled to maintain a series of low-paying jobs. One is in a garment factory and the other is in a restaurant. After losing her restaurant job and unable to find another, she turned to collecting cans to pay for her daughter’s books, meals and commuting.
Marin, 53, got tips while talking to other cans collectors and discovered a labor route that seemed like a last resort.
“I was my own boss and could work hard to be successful. I walked through Bushwick and Greenpoint, into bars and restaurants and asked them for cans and bottles. At first, I was making $20 or $30 a day. Then it went up to $90.”
These days, Marin benefits from the connections she develops with construction workers who appreciate her coming and taking bags of recyclables from them.
“It’s all about relationships,” she said. “You show your work ethic and come with respect. You don’t make a mess and make everything better than it was before you got there.”
In 2011, she had the opportunity to meet a man named Pedro Romero from her hometown of Puebla. He’s also struggling in New York City. They recognize each other, love each other and work together for a win-win situation. They now live on the pedestrian streets of Williamsburg, working around the clock and sleeping as much as possible (usually in their cars, for transportation).
As a team, she says they produce 5,000 cans a day. Because they do their own sorting and separation at the nonprofit Sure We Can, they earn 6.5 cents per can.
As the couple consider their future, they share the same dreams as many near their golden years.
“Ultimately, we want to take it easy,” Romero said. “We are saving money and looking forward to returning to our country. We want to retire together in Mexico.”