New York’s “conservers” have their fair contribution to a clean environment

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NEW YORK: In a Brooklyn street, Laurentino Marin doesn’t stop to admire the Halloween decorations. Like every morning, the Mexican is busy filling a shopping cart with cans and used plastic bottles, which he will exchange for a few dollars.

Marin, who is 80, is one of 10,000 “conservatives” in New York, mostly older migrants from Latin America and China who scrape their lives sorting and recycling plastic and aluminum .

Frail and stooped, Marin stops in front of the staircase of a typical brownstone house that dots this neighborhood, lifts the lids of the garbage cans and plunges his gloved hands into them.

He is also rummaging through the garbage-filled plastic wrappers on the sidewalk, awaiting collection from the city’s sanitation department.

Large transparent bags hang from her cart, already filled to the brim with a multicolored assortment of soda and beer cans.

“I’m looking for cans to survive,” said the wrinkled-faced Sailor from Oaxaca in Spanish.

“I am not receiving help, there is no work, so we have to fight,” he adds.

Marin has no employer. He exchanges his cans and bottles in one of the city’s private waste collection centers. For each, he receives a five-cent coin.

On average, he earns between $ 30 and $ 40 a day, enough to supplement his daughter’s income from a laundromat so they can make their monthly rent of $ 1,800.

The sum of five cents was enshrined in a 1982 New York State law known as the “Bottle Bill” which was passed to encourage consumers to recycle. It hasn’t changed for almost 40 years.

“It had a really good impact on reducing waste statewide, especially in New York City,” said Judith Enck, founder of the anti-pollution movement, Beyond Plastics, who campaigned at the time for the law.

Enck now wants to see the amount double to ten cents.

“We did not know that this would become a major source of income for many families, as it is,” she told AFP.

The state government says the bill made it easier to recycle 5.5 billion pieces of plastic, glass and aluminum containers across New York City in 2020 alone, more than half of the 8, 6 billion items sold.

Canners are a key part of this effort, but they are unofficial workers, devoid of the benefits and health insurance that would come with recognized work.

They symbolize the massive inequality of New York’s wealth, to which Eric Adams, almost certain to be elected mayor of the city next Tuesday, has pledged to remedy.

“It’s hard. There are people who walk miles and miles,” said Josefa Marin, also Mexican.

– Pandemic woes –

“And then there are places where people do not like their waste to be collected. They throw us away like little animals and do not understand that we live from it,” she adds.

A pejorative term also exists for them: scavengers, whose canneries say they do not recognize their contribution to the environment.

“We help keep the city clean,” says Marin, 52.

“(Without us) all this plastic would go down the drain and into the sea. We are doing something for our planet, for our ecology,” she adds.

Marin regularly brings his collection to Sure We Can, a nonprofit recycling center in Brooklyn, which also serves as a community space where curators can meet.

Director Ryan Castalia says the center attracts a diverse crowd.

“We have candidates here who experience homelessness and who really need every penny they get here,” he explains between mountains of cans and sorted bottles.

“And we have candidates here who are almost like small business entrepreneurs who really use canning to support their entire family or their livelihood. They will process thousands of cans every day.”

Spring 2020 was particularly difficult for canneries when the pandemic shut down bars and restaurants in New York City.

But as other jobs dry up, the years old industry continues to attract new workers and, in turn, increase competition.

“I’m in the construction business,” says Alvaro, a 60-year-old Mexican. “It pays a lot better but there is no work, so for a year I have been collecting my cans.”

“It doesn’t make much money. There are too many people in the streets.”

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