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How New Yorkers make up to $1,000 a day collecting cans

On a recent Wednesday night, the blue-tinted plastic bags full of empty cans and empty bottles look like a pile of trash to passers-by on the corner of Riverside Drive and West 89th Street. But for a group of Queens family members, led by Jeanett Pilatacsi, they symbolize a livelihood.

Each bag is filled with about 200 discarded beverage containers – worth five cents each when redeemed at a recycling center in Elmsford, NY. All that aluminum and plastic is gradually generating income for the Pilatacsi clan.

On the most profitable days, ambitious canners can accumulate 100 returnable blue bags, which add up to $1,000 in profit.

The Pilatacsis are not alone. According to Ryan Castalia, executive director of nonprofit redemption center Sure We Can, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 New Yorkers make money by collecting cans, bottles and plastic containers and returning them to outlets for a refund. Of these, about 100 make their living from canning. It was reported last month that multimillionaire landlady Lisa Fiekowsky is known for collecting and cashing in cans and bottles in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

Ray del Carmen, who lives in Brooklyn and now works as a manager at Sure We Can, said the savviest can collectors know some days are more profitable than others. Though he’s past his full-time canning days — he still helps his girlfriend who collects cans for a living — his fondest memory is a vacation.

Jeanett Pilatacsi (in yellow apron) with family members who collect up to 100 bags of cans a day - a $1,000 worth of loot.
Jeanett Pilatacsi (in yellow apron) with family members who collect up to 100 bags of cans a day – a $1,000 worth of loot.
William C. Lopez/NY Post

“St. Patrick’s Day was the best day,” Del Carmen told the Post. “Everyone starts drinking early. So, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., I went from bar to bar between 42nd and 45th streets and made $800 in one day alone. They threw away empty bottles and cans and I took them.”

Another hotspot is Flash Dancers. He recalls capitalizing on the jittery shop’s policy of urging customers to buy drinks. “I could get 2,400 bottles in four or five hours” — which would fetch $120.

Here are three stories of can collectors, all immigrants who arrived on US shores with no money and limited skills. By finding gold in other people’s junk, they have blossomed into small business owners and discovered their American dreams.

Pilatacsi said she and her family of 12 own a home in Rego Park, Queens, and her earnings pay all her bills. "This is better than my old job working in a candle factory" she told the Post. "It was a lot of hours for too little money."
Pilatacsi (in pink) said she and her family of 12 own a home in Rego Park, Queens, and her earnings pay all her bills.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

family matter

While wealthy New Yorkers look askance at can collectors who haul recyclables through posh neighborhoods, Jeanett Pilatacsi, 38, says it’s a profession that brings self-respect and good pay.

“It’s better than my old job working in a candle factory,” she told the Post. “That was too many hours for too little money. Now my family and I work together from noon to 8pm collecting cans until we fill up our truck.”

Bags will be transported in a white 2021 Mercedes Benz Sprinter purchased on credit. Sometimes the vehicle and family members work overtime: “We go out from 1am to 2am and collect bottles and cans from bars before they close.”

After Pilatacsi and her family bought this 2021 Mercedes Benz Sprinter two years ago, she said they were able to turn their can collecting into a real business.
After Pilatacsi and her family bought this 2021 Mercedes Benz Sprinter two years ago, she said they were able to turn their can collecting into a real business.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

Her payout tonight will be in cash, more than $600 for a long day’s work, when a truck from Elmsford-based recycling company Galvanize Group pulls up to pick up the goods.

Smaller, additional pouches contain glass, but Pilatacsi said, “Bottles are the hardest part. They’re so heavy.” They also pay the same five cents per container as aluminum and plastic—a sum that has persisted since 1983, when five cents was worth 15 cents today.

Although Pilatacsi and her family of twelve are content banking this way, the business started out of necessity.

Pilatacsi said collecting cans came out of necessity after her father lost his job in construction.
Pilatacsi said collecting cans came out of necessity after her father lost his job in construction.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

“Fifteen years ago my father lost his job in construction,” she said. “It was scary. We didn’t know how we were going to pay the rent. He went out with a shopping cart and started collecting cans. Now he’s retired and we took over.”

In the beginning, she added, he accumulated 30 returnable boxes a week. Now, on their best days, family members collect up to 100 bags, which would be good for $1,000.

Her decision to treat can collecting as a business made this all possible, she said. They learned the importance of building relationships with bouncers and porters to get their discarded treasures and ignoring the haters. “Sometimes people tell me we’re digging in the trash,” she explained with an eye roll. “But we don’t care. We know what we’re doing.”

She said a key element to successfully collecting cans is building relationships with the bouncers and porters of buildings.
She said a key element to successfully collecting cans is building relationships with the bouncers and porters of buildings.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

All 12 crew members in the collection are related and live together in a Rego Park house that they own. Pilatacsi said her profits from canning pay all her bills. When not working, they eat together, help raise the children and share the thousands that can be earned each week.

After a day of canning around Manhattan, where they usually forage from 99th to 86th Streets, Pilatacsi likes to unwind with a shower, a family dinner and a telenovela before bed, waking up the next morning and by starts in front.

The children sometimes help collect cans when they are not at school. Pilatacsi’s nephew Nelson, 11, is planning on going to college and recently helped out in the final days of summer vacation. At the weekend he said: “We all take it easy and go to the park together.”

Former construction worker Mario Palonci, 70, said he compensates for financial shortfalls by collecting 2,000 cans a night when he can muster the energy.
Former construction worker Mario Palonci, 70, said he compensates for financial shortfalls by collecting 2,000 cans a night when he can muster the energy.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

retirement plan

For Mario Palonci, a 70-year-old immigrant from the Czech Republic, canning served as a lifeline.

A reformed alcoholic – “I drank 20 or 30 cans of beer a day,” he told the Post. “Beer, beer, beer…” — who lived on the streets after his construction jobs dried up, now lives in a shelter in Brooklyn and makes up for financial shortfalls by collecting 2,000 cans a night if he can find the energy.

“Most people who work all night go home,” Palonci told the Post. “I spend the morning sorting, organizing and putting my cans in the right bags. It’s hard work, but it’s the best work for me.”

Palonci came to New York from the Czech Republic.
Palonci came to New York from the Czech Republic.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

Besides providing money, he said, it deserves respect. “I work on Bedford Street,” said Palonci, who says he has type 2 diabetes and transports his redeemable goods in a cart. “The bar owners know me and know there will be no mess from me. I am a professional.”

Meals are offered to him at the shelter, but money from canning provides Palonci with other necessities of life. Along with extra food, transportation and clothing, he said: “I need cigarettes and internet. I have to read the news from home.”

Josefa Marin said she helped her daughter get through college by collecting cans. Now she and boyfriend Pedro Romero are a team who hunt for cans every night.
Josefa Marin said she helped her daughter get through college by collecting cans. Now she and boyfriend Pedro Romero are a team who hunt for cans every night.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

double income

For Josefa Marin, an immigrant from Mexico, collecting cans means nothing less than a better future for her child. In the early 2000s, her daughter commuted from home to Briarcliffe College on Long Island, and Marin struggled to make ends meet in a series of low-paying jobs. One was in a clothing factory, another in a restaurant. After losing the gig at the restaurant and being unable to find another, she turned to collecting cans to pay for her daughter’s books, meals and commuting.

Speaking to fellow can collectors, Marin, 53, gathered tips and discovered something amazing about what seemed like a last resort job.

“I am my own boss and I can work hard to be successful. I walked through Bushwick and Greenpoint, went into bars and restaurants and asked for their cans and bottles. In the beginning I was making 20 or 30 dollars a day. Then it became $90.”

By collecting cans, Marin is her own boss.
By collecting cans, Marin is her own boss.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

Today, Marin benefits from her well-established connections with construction workers, who appreciate her stopping by and taking bags of recyclable rubbish 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 leave everything better than it was before you got there.”

In 2011, she had a chance meeting with a man named Pedro Romero who was from her hometown of Puebla. He, too, struggled to make ends meet in NYC. They recognized each other, fell in love and joined forces to be able to work together profitably. They now live together in a walk-up in Williamsburg and work day and night and sleep when they can (often in their car, which is used for transportation).

Marin and Romero can pull in up to 5,000 cans a day.
Marin and Romero can feed up to 5,000 cans a day.
Luis E. Velez for the NY Post

As a team, she said, they’re feeding 5,000 cans a day. Since they sort and separate themselves at the non-profit organization Sure We Can, they can bring in 6.5 cents per can.

As the couple ponder their future, they have the same dream as many people approaching their golden years.

“In the end we want to take it easy,” said Romero. “We are saving money and looking forward to returning home to our country. We would like to retire together in Mexico.”

https://nypost.com/2022/09/17/how-new-yorkers-make-up-to-1k-a-day-by-collecting-cans/ How New Yorkers make up to $1,000 a day collecting cans

JACLYN DIAZ

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